Who is responsible for the broken vase in the foyer? How harshly should criminals be punished for their crimes?
By the language of responsibility, we mean the way we report events for which someone might be held responsible --- events for which someone might be blamed, or praised. For example, in reporting a famous event witnessed by millions of people on TV, I might say "Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson’s blouse, revealing her naked – uh --- chest." Well, actually, her right breast, not to be overly euphemistic.
I’m describing an action for which Timberlake might be held responsible, and with him CBS, for exposing the young, innocent Super Bowl watchers of the world to a naked breast.
That’s not the way Timberlake described it, however. He said that as he reached across her blouse, "a wardrobe malfunction occurred”. He described the same event, but without a person to hold responsible for opening the blouse. Presumably he thought that made him sound less culpable. Still, millions of people saw it. They saw Timberlake reach across Jackson’s blouse, unclip something, her blouse fall open, and her exposed breast. Even if that wasn’t his intention, it's clear he did it.
Shakespeare said that a rose smells as sweet, no matter what one calls it. If he were correct, anyone who witnessed that Super Bowl moment should realize it was something Timberlake was responsible for, no matter how it's described. But interestingly enough Shakespeare was wrong. There's quite a bit of evidence that if you blindfold people and ask them to smell an aroma, what you call that aroma has a big effect on how pleasant they find it. If you call it a rose, they’ll probably like it. If you just call it a flower, they’ll like it, but maybe not as much. If you just call it a plant, even less so. And so on
Now suppose you show two groups of people the same footage of from the Super Bowl. You say to one group:
"You're going to see a video where Justin Timberlake reaches across the front of Jackson’s body, unfastens a snap and tears part of the bodice!"
To the other group you say:
"Timberlake reaches across the front of Jackson’s body. A snap unfastens and part of the bodice tears!"
So, what would happen if you ask, "Was this Timberlake’s fault? Should someone be fined?"
We might think that what should happen is that it shouldn't make any difference. Both groups see the same event. It’s obvious that Timberlake did it, even if it wasn’t what he meant to do. It wasn’t spontaneous bodice combustion. The second description doesn’t say that he didn’t do it. It’s like when President Reagan said, about the Iran-Contra affair, "Mistakes were made”. Well, if mistakes were made, someone made them. And if a bodice was torn, someone tore it. But what should happen, isn’t what actually happens. In fact, the first group is much more likely to assign responsibility and level a fine, and a large one at that.
What’s more, there are differences between languages on this. Suppose we're eyewitnesses who think the bodice-tearing was unintentional and accidental -- a true wardrobe malfunction, as Timberlake put it. In that case, either description is still OK, at least in English --- the one where Timberlake himself unfastened a snap and tore the bodice --- or the one where the snap unfastened and the bodice tore. But in Spanish, the eyewitness who thinks it was an accident is much more likely to use a reflexive verb that avoids giving responsibility.
This is important because the effect carries over to memory. Often the way we describe things affects how we encode the memories of them. When we remember passively-described events, we're much less good at remembering who was responsible. And people whose language prefers reflexive verbs, like Spanish, are less likely to recall the responsible parties.
We’ll be talking with one of our favorite guests, Lera Boroditsky from Stanford’s Psychology Department. Being a psychologist, Lera can prove these effects with many experiments, lot of graphs, statistics, and all sorts of things like that. But I need to say a little about why it’s philosophically interesting. For one thing, language seems to affect how we think of events, even when we're eye-witnesses. For another, given the way our descriptions of action, agency and responsibility vary across languages and cultures, perhaps the the conception of responsibility does too. Who knows, maybe Puritanism can be traced to the way English lets us focus on the person who does something, even when those actions are unintentional and accidental…or maybe I’m going off the deep end.