I remember driving in my car several years ago and hearing a song by Rodney Crowell on the radio called Earthbound. It has a lyric in it that says, “Fifty years of livin’ and your worst mistakes forgiven, it just takes time time time.” The sentiment is that as things recede into the past, people are often willing to forgive you for things you have done.
I was reminded of this song while reading a paper by Eugene Caruso in the November, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. This paper presented a number of studies demonstrating that people view a moral lapse as worse if it is going to happen in the future than if it has happened in the past.
In one study, people were told about a fictitious scenario in which Amazon.com would charge its most loyal customers more money for products than new customers. Most people would see this as unfair. One group was told that Amazon tried this policy for a week a month ago. A second group was told that they were planning to try this policy a month from now. People rated themselves as more upset when the test was in the future than in the past. They also rated the policy as more unfair when it was going to happen in the future than when it had already happened.
The amount of time matters as well, though. When the test either happened a year ago or was going to happen a year in the future, then there were no differences between past and present.
This effect is not limited to negative events. In another study, people were told about a generous cash donation. When people were told that the man was going to make this donation next month, they felt better about him and thought the donation was more generous than when they were told that he made the donation last month.
Finally, while people treated the past and future differently, they don’t think that they should treat it differently. In a study looking at this question, people made judgments about another unfair scenario. This one involved a story about Coca-Cola trying to change the price it charged for a drink depending on the temperature outside. In this study, though, people made judgments both about the past and the future. When the time frame shifted from past to future, people did not change their judgments. Still, the basic effect from the previous studies was obtained. Those participants who made judgments about the future first rated Coca Cola’s policy as more unfair than those who made the judgments about the past.
Why does this happen? We generally view the future as changeable and the past as fixed. By treating a moral lapse in the future as very negative, we are putting pressure on ourselves and others to act properly. Once the lapse has happened, though, there isn’t anything we can do about it. The further it recedes into the past, the more that we feel as though we need to get on with our lives. And so we ultimately end up forgiving others.
Given this set of results, you might be tempted to just ignore moral restrictions and do whatever you want. Before you do this, though, Caruso points out an additional factor that affects people’s judgments. While we are often willing to forgive people for their lapses in the past, we are much less willing to forgive when we find out that they planned ahead for their lapse. He points to studies exploring the penalties people want to give to others when there is evidence that they broke the law. When there is also evidence that they planned ahead to break the law, the punishments are more severe than when it does not seem that people planned ahead to break the law.