Toward a Science of Redemption
Moral violations are a daily occurrence: we arrive late to meetings, leave dishes in the sink for roommates to clean, and commit a host of other routine wrongdoings. Given the frequency with which we experience—and commit—moral transgressions, a society without a means to redeem those transgressions risks becoming one that cannot sustain social bonds. To avoid this outcome, we need ways to decide when people have made good on their past wrongs—that is, when they have been redeemed. Despite the foundational role redemption plays in maintaining the social contract, a well-developed social science of redemption does not yet exist. In an effort to build such a science, the current work asked two main questions. First, how do children and adults conceptualize systems of potential redemption? Using incarceration as an example of a system that is ostensibly designed to rehabilitate people who have transgressed, we found that children were more likely than adults to view imprisoned individuals as bad people. Yet children were also more likely than adults to report that people would change for the better as a result of receiving punishment for their transgressions, demonstrating a developmental change in perceptions regarding the capacity for redemption. Second, what are the consequences of framing people as unredeemable? This framing produced negative attitudes and behaviors from both children and adults. These negative outcomes reached beyond incarcerated people themselves, as participants also drew negative moral inferences about the children of incarcerated parents, and generalized to contexts beyond the legal system. Taken together, these studies shed light on moral cognition across development and highlight the need for a more robust psychological science of redemption.