How to get away with attempted murder

Very few people want to get away with attempted murder, mostly because they want to get away with actual murder. Still, if your murder attempt has already failed, there is a way to keep from facing the full consequences of it — just have someone else murder your victim.

Fiery Cushman, a psychologist, was interested with how people assign blame to certain crimes, specifically how people's opinions are split between punishing the results of a crime and punishing the intent of a crime. Say I attempted to steal your phone by grabbing it and running. Because I am me, I then trip over my feet, fail to make a getaway, and toss the phone back to you in an attempt to keep you from summoning the police and having them arrest my sad, hobbling self. I'm a thief and should probably be punished like one, but you still have your phone. On the other hand, if I just decide to run, trip over my feet and knock your phone to the ground, breaking it, I'm innocent of everything but bad judgment, but you might still be miffed that I deprived you of your phone. There are legal responses to both situations, but how is your emotion response to each? Generally, we try to split the difference between intent and consequences, but sometimes, just like me attempting to run, we trip ourselves up.

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Cushman demonstrated this by presenting two groups of people with two different scenarios. The first involved two competitive runners, one of which tries to poison the other. The evil runner is no more competent a criminal than I am; he has heard that his rival is allergic to poppy seeds and so he puts the seeds on a salad and sends it over. The rival is actually allergic to hazelnuts. He's fine.

The second scenario goes the same way as the first, in terms of what the evil runner does. Unfortunately for the rival, the chef that made the salad joins in the general incompetence and puts hazelnut dressing on the salad. The rival dies, completely coincidentally.

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The crime of attempted murder is exactly the same; the results of the crime itself are even the same. The rival is in no way harmed by the attempted murderer. What changed is the completely coincidental death. That death, though, dramatically shifted people's priorities. The group that considered the scenario of the attempted murder and the healthy rival said the poppy seedist should be given about twenty years in prison for the crime. Not so in the scenario in which the rival died. People's minds were taken over by the chef who had unwittingly and unintentionally caused the death — even if he wasn't criminally to blame for anything. The would-be poisoner got a much lighter sentence for the same crime.

Clearly, if you want to get away with attempted murder, all you have to do is make sure that someone else kills your potential victim.

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[Via Future Science]

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