I'm Morally Outraged, Therefore That Child Is in Danger!

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It’s easy to see where our perception of how much danger a child is in would influence how much moral outrage we feel toward the child’s parent. But check this out; it works the other way, too. The moral outrage we feel toward a parent influences how much danger we believe the child is in (Thomas, Stanford, & Sarnecka, 2016; see Lombrozo, 2016 for an interview with the researchers).

Give half of your students scenario A and the other half scenario B. You can print these and distribute each to half of your class, or you can ask each half of the class to close their eyes while you display each scenario on the classroom screen, or you can make the scenarios available to each half of your class through your learning management system.

Scenario A

“Sandy A. (26) is a safety inspector and the mother of 10-month-old baby Olivia. On Tuesday evenings, Sandy takes Olivia to a "Mommy and Me" exercise class at a gym. One evening in early fall, Sandy and Olivia finish class and return to their car, which is parked in the gym's cool underground parking garage. Sandy buckles Olivia into her car seat (where Olivia immediately falls asleep), locks the car, and walks a few steps to the parking machine to pay for their parking. On her way back, Sandy is hit by a car and knocked unconscious. The driver immediately calls an ambulance, which takes Sandy to the hospital. No one realizes that Sandy had a child with her, or that Olivia is asleep in the back of the car. Olivia is in the car, asleep, for about 45 minutes until Sandy regains consciousness and alerts hospital staff” (Thomas, et.al., 2016).

Scenario B

“Sandy A. (26) is a safety inspector and the mother of 10-month-old Baby Olivia. On Tuesday evenings, Sandy goes to meet her best friend's husband (with whom she is having a secret affair) in his private office at the gym where he's the manager. At these times, she leaves Olivia with her mom (Olivia's grandma). One evening in early fall, Olivia's grandma is out of town. So Sandy drives to the gym and parks in the gym's cool underground parking garage. Olivia, who is buckled into her carseat, falls asleep as soon as the car stops moving. Sandy locks the car and goes into the gym. Olivia is in the car, asleep, for about 45 minutes until Sandy returns” (Thomas, et.al., 2016).

After students have read their assigned scenario, ask students “to estimate (on a scale of 1 to 10) how much danger the child was in during the parent’s absence” (Thomas, et.al., 2016). Collect the responses (on paper, or through an in-class student response system, or through your learning management system) and calculate means.

Note that in both cases the child’s experience is the same. The only difference is why the child was left alone.

In the Thomas, et.al. study, participants rated the danger to Olivia very differently depending on whether her aloneness was due to the mother’s unintentional absence (mean of 5.47) or due to the mother’s having an affair (mean of 8.28).

The authors posit that the moral outrage toward the parent, in this example the mother, comes first, and then to justify the moral outrage, we imagine the child to be in grave danger. Just a generation ago, it was the norm to leave children unsupervised. Now, parents are condemned – and sometimes arrested – for doing so. The authors “suggest that much of the recent hysteria concerning danger to unsupervised children is the product of this feedback loop, in which inflated estimates of risk lead to a new moral norm against leaving children alone, and then the need to justify moral condemnation of parents who violate this norm leads in turn to even more inflated estimates of risk, generating even stronger moral condemnation of parents who violate the norm, and so on” (Thomas, et.al., 2016).

If you decide to cover this topic when you talk about parenting, introduce students to the availability heuristic – making judgments based on how available information is in memory. We hear about every child abduction or attempted abduction by a stranger in our city or region, so we anticipate the risk to be much greater than it actually is.

Ask students, “What percentage of children disappear, including those who are killed, at the hands of a stranger annually?” The answer: 0.00007% -- that’s one in 1.4 million (Gardner, 2009).

Small group or short writing assignment questions:

  1. What were the independent and dependent variables in this experiment?
  2. What results would you expect if the mother went to work, engaged in a volunteer activity, or did a relaxing activity instead? (Intentionally leaving the child alone was perceived as more dangerous than unintentionally leaving the child alone, and the more voluntary the behavior became, the greater the perceived risk to the child.)
  3. What if the parent were the father instead of the mother? (The same pattern, for the most part, appeared when the parent depicted was a father. Although, the risk to the child was seen as less likely when the father went to work than when the mother went to work. Is work seen as less voluntary for fathers?)
  4. Is this moral outrage inherently classist? In other words, are parents living in poverty or working class parents more likely to leave children alone out of need than middle class parents or wealthy parents?
  5. Are there benefits to children who spend some of their time unsupervised? (Increased problem-solving skills? Increased social skills developed through play with other unsupervised children?)
  6. At what age and under what circumstances should children be permitted to be unsupervised? Explain your reasoning.
  7. Have cellphones become surrogate supervisors? (Parents can call at any time. Parents can GPS track their children.)



Gardner, D. (2009). The science of fear: How the culture of fear manipulates your brain. New York, NY: Plume. as cited in Thomas, A.J., Stanford, P.K. & Sarnecka, B.W., (2016). No child left alone: Moral judgments about parents affect estimates of risk to children. Collabra, 2(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.33

Lombrozo, T. (2016, August 22). Why do we judge parents for putting kids at perceived - but unreal - risk? Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/08/22/490847797/why-do-we-judge-parents-for-putting-kids-at-pe...

Thomas, A.J., Stanford, P.K. & Sarnecka, B.W., (2016). No child left alone: Moral judgments about parents affect estimates of risk to children. Collabra, 2(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.33

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.