Can you live an immoral life and make up for it right before you die?

George Newman, a post doc at the Yale School of Management, recently gave a talk at the Leeds School of Business. He and I had a chance to chat about his research, and I asked him about a paper that he published recently. The paper is related to the notion that death bed (aka end-of-life) confessions have a profound effect on how moral or immoral someone’s life will be judged. Probably the most well known tale of an end-of-life change-of-heart is Ebenezer Scrooge, but it is not difficult to find intriguing modern day examples.

Here is what George had to say:

The work is consistent with emerging empirical and anecdotal evidence of the power of apologies.  People seem willing to forgive terrible behavior if the wrongdoer takes responsibility in a sincere manner. The list of celebrities and politicians who have been able to bounce back from scandal is striking.  See some famous apologies here, and learn how to apologize here.


The paper, Newman, George E., Kritsi K. Lockhart and Frank C. Keil (2010), “’End-of-Life’ biases in moral evaluations of others,” Cognition, 115, 343-349, can be viewed here

When evaluating the moral character of others, people show a strong bias to more heavily weigh behaviors at the end of an individual’s life, even if those behaviors arise in light of an overwhelmingly longer duration of  contradictory behavior. Across four experiments, we find that this ‘‘end-of-life” bias uniquely applies to intentional changes in behavior that immediately precede death, and appears to result from the inference that the behavioral change reflects the emergence of the individual’s ‘‘true self”.

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