Outcome Severity and Judgments of “Responsibility”: A Meta-Analytic Review1


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    This research was supported by grants #5 T32 MH16156-17 and #5 T32 MH16156-18 from the National Institutes of Mental Health. These data were first presented at the American Psychology-Law Society Biennial Conference in March 1998.1 would like to thank Steve Penrod, Dan Bernstein, Brian Bomstein, Neal Feigenson, Edie Greene, Michael Saks, Brian Wilcox, and Grant Robbennolt for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer K. Robbennolt, School of Law, University of Missouri-Columbia, Hulston Hall, Columbia, MO 65211. e-mail: robbennholtj@missouri.edu.


Research has provided mixed support for the hypothesis that when an incident results in a more severe outcome, more responsibility will be attributed to a potentially responsible actor. This paper uses the techniques of meta-analysis to examine this literature. The results support the contention that people attribute greater responsibility for the outcome of a negative incident when that outcome is more severe than when the outcome is minor. The direction of this relationship is consistent across methodologies. However, the strength of the correlation varies depending on which type of judgment participants are asked to make. Because many of these variables are tied to legal concepts, the results are discussed in the context of the expectations of the legal system regarding the impact of outcome severity on each variable.