Bad to the bone

Kevin Lewis

November 19, 2019

Organizations Appear More Unethical than Individuals
Arthur Jago & Jeffrey Pfeffer
Journal of Business Ethics, November 2019, Pages 71–87


Both individuals and organizations can (and do) engage in unethical behaviors. Across six experiments, we examine how people’s ethical judgments are affected by whether the agent engaging in unethical action is a person or an organization. People believe organizations are more unethical than individuals, even when both agents engage in identical behaviors (Experiments 1–2). Using both mediation (Experiments 3a–3b) and moderation (Experiment 4) analytical approaches, we find that this effect is explained by people’s beliefs that organizations produce more harm when behaving unethically, even when they do not, as well as people’s perceptions that organizations are relatively more blameworthy agents. We then explore how these judgments manifest across different kinds of organizations (Experiment 5) as well as how they produce discrepant punishments following ethically questionable business activities (Experiment 6). Although society and the law often treat individuals and organizations as equivalent, people believe for-profit organizations’ behaviors are less ethical than identical individual behaviors. We discuss the ethical implications of this discrepancy, as well as additional implications concerning reputation management, punishment, and signaling in organizational contexts.

Do Relatives With Greater Reproductive Potential Get Help First?: A Test of the Inclusive Fitness Explanation of Kin Altruism
Jordan Schriver et al.
Evolutionary Psychology, August 2019


According to inclusive fitness theory, people are more willing to help those they are genetically related to because relatives share a kin altruism gene and are able to pass it along. We tested this theory by examining the effect of reproductive potential on altruism. Participants read hypothetical scenarios and chose between cousins (Studies 1 and 2) and cousins and friends (Study 3) to help with mundane chores or a life-or-death rescue. In life-or-death situations, participants were more willing to help a cousin preparing to conceive rather than adopt a child (Study 1) and a cousin with high rather than low chance of reproducing (Studies 2 and 3). Patterns in the mundane condition were less consistent. Emotional closeness also contributed to helping intentions (Studies 1 and 2). By experimentally manipulating reproductive potential while controlling for genetic relatedness and emotional closeness, we provide a demonstration of the direct causal effects of reproductive potential on helping intentions, supporting the inclusive fitness explanation of kin altruism.

Autonomous morals: Inferences of mind predict acceptance of AI behavior in sacrificial moral dilemmas
April Young & Andrew Monroe
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming


Three studies compared people's judgments of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and humans faced with a moral dilemma. Study 1 showed that, for identical decisions, AVs were judged as more blameworthy, less moral, and less trustworthy compared to humans. However, perceiving AVs as having a human-like mind reduced this difference. Study 2 extended this finding by manipulating AV mindedness. Describing AVs' decision-making capacity in mentalistic terms (relative to mechanistic terms) reduced blame and anger and fostered greater trust and perceptions of morality. Study 3, replicated these findings, and demonstrated that perceived mindedness predicted judgments of trust, morality, and willingness to purchase or ride in an AV. These findings suggest that people's moral reservations about AVs may derive from doubting that AVs have the mental capacities necessary for moral judgment, and that one route for improving trust in AVs is to design them with a veneer of human-like mental qualities.

Empathy affects tradeoffs between life's quality and duration
Adrianna Jenkins
PLoS ONE, October 2019


Sharing others’ emotional experience through empathy has been widely linked to prosocial behavior, i.e., behavior that aims to improve others’ welfare. However, different aspects of a person’s welfare do not always move in concert. The present research investigated how empathy affects tradeoffs between two different aspects of others’ welfare: their experience (quality of life) and existence (duration of life). Three experiments offer evidence that empathy increases the priority people place on reducing others’ suffering relative to prolonging their lives. Participants assigned to high or low empathy conditions considered scenarios in which saving a person’s life was incompatible with extinguishing the person’s suffering. Higher empathy for a suffering accident victim was associated with greater preference to let the person die rather than keep the person alive. Participants expressed greater preference to end the lives of friends than strangers (Experiment 1), those whose perspectives they had taken than those whom they considered from afar (Experiment 2), and those who remained alert and actively suffering than those whose injuries had rendered them unconscious (Experiment 3). These results highlight a distinction between empathy’s effects on the motivation to reduce another person’s suffering and its effects on the prosocial behaviors that sometimes, but do not necessarily, follow from that motivation, including saving the person’s life. Results have implications for scientific understanding of the relationship between empathy and morality and for contexts in which people make decisions on behalf of others.

Moral Universalism: Measurement and Heterogeneity
Benjamin Enke, Ricardo Rodriguez-Padilla & Florian Zimmermann
Harvard Working Paper, October 2019


This paper introduces a new set of simple experimentally-validated survey games to measure moral universalism: the extent to which people exhibit the same level of altruism and trust towards strangers as towards in-group members. In a representative sample of the U.S. population, an individual's degree of universalism is largely a domain-general trait. Older people, men, whites, the rich, the rural, and the religious exhibit less universalist preferences and beliefs. Looking at economic behaviors and outcomes, universalists donate less money locally but more globally, are less likely to exhibit home bias in equity and educational investments, have fewer friends, and report being more lonely.

The Ethical Perils of Personal, Communal Relations: A Language Perspective
Maryam Kouchaki, Francesca Gino & Yuval Feldman
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Most companies use codes of conduct, ethics training, and regular communication to ensure that employees know about rules to follow to avoid misconduct. In the present research, we focused on the type of language used in codes of conduct and showed that impersonal language (e.g., “employees” or “members”) and personal, communal language (e.g., “we”) lead to different behaviors because they change how people perceive the group or organization of which they are a part. Using multiple methods, including lab- and field-based experiments (total N = 1,443), and a large data set of S&P 500 firms (i.e., publicly traded, large U.S. companies that are part of the S&P 500 stock market index), we robustly demonstrated that personal, communal language (compared with impersonal language) influences perceptions of a group’s warmth, which, in turn, increases levels of dishonesty among its members.

The utilitarian scientist: The humanization of scientists in moral dilemmas
Nicholas Sosa & Kimberly Rios
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming


Prior research suggests that people perceive scientists as having both humanizing (e.g., trustworthy, rational) and dehumanizing (e.g., robotic, emotionless) qualities. The present research examined if cultural stereotypes of scientists as utilitarian decision-makers predicts evaluations of scientists' humanness. In a series of studies, participants (U.S. Mechanical Turk workers; N = 783) evaluated how they believed scientists and other target groups would resolve different moral dilemmas. Participants perceived scientists (relative to other target groups) as more likely to make utilitarian decisions (Studies 1–5), an effect predicted by scientists' greater perceived competence (Study 2). Further, scientists who were perceived to make appropriate utilitarian decisions were dehumanized less and trusted more than other target groups (Studies 3–4). Implications for perceptions of scientists in moral decision-making are discussed.

Being “good” or “good enough”: Prosocial risk and the structure of moral self-regard
Julian Zlatev et al.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


The motivation to feel moral powerfully guides people’s prosocial behavior. We propose that people’s efforts to preserve their moral self-regard conform to a moral threshold model. This model predicts that people are primarily concerned with whether their prosocial behavior legitimates the claim that they have acted morally, a claim that often diverges from whether their behavior is in the best interests of the recipient. Specifically, it predicts that for people to feel moral following a prosocial decision, that decision need not have promised the greatest benefit for the recipient but only one larger than at least one other available outcome. Moreover, this model predicts that once people produce a benefit that exceeds this threshold, their moral self-regard is relatively insensitive to the magnitude of benefit that they produce. In 6 studies, we test this moral threshold model by examining people’s prosocial risk decisions. We find that, compared with risky egoistic decisions, people systematically avoid making risky prosocial decisions that carry the possibility of producing the worst possible outcome in a choice set — even when this means avoiding a decision that is objectively superior. We further find that this aversion to producing the worst possible prosocial outcome leads people’s prosocial (vs. egoistic) risk decisions to be less sensitive to those decisions’ maximum possible benefit. We highlight theoretical and practical implications of these findings, including the detrimental consequence that people’s desire to protect their moral self-regard can have on the amount of good that they produce.

Evidence of a processing advantage for deservingness-relevant information
Carolyn Hafer et al.
Social Psychology, forthcoming


We investigated processing speed for deservingness-relevant versus deservingness-irrelevant information. Female students read stories involving deserved, undeserved, or neutral outcomes. We recorded participants’ reaction time (RT) in processing the outcomes. We also measured individual differences in “belief in a just world” as a proxy for deservingness schematicity. RTs for deserved and undeserved outcomes were faster than for neutral outcomes, B = −8.45, p = .011, an effect that increased the stronger the belief in a just world (e.g., B = −3.18, p = .006). These findings provide novel evidence that the construct of deservingness is central in human social relations, and suggest both universal and particularistic schemas for deservingness.

Moral grandstanding in public discourse: Status-seeking motives as a potential explanatory mechanism in predicting conflict
Joshua Grubbs et al.
PLoS ONE, October 2019


Public discourse is often caustic and conflict-filled. This trend seems to be particularly evident when the content of such discourse is around moral issues (broadly defined) and when the discourse occurs on social media. Several explanatory mechanisms for such conflict have been explored in recent psychological and social-science literatures. The present work sought to examine a potentially novel explanatory mechanism defined in philosophical literature: Moral Grandstanding. According to philosophical accounts, Moral Grandstanding is the use of moral talk to seek social status. For the present work, we conducted six studies, using two undergraduate samples (Study 1, N = 361; Study 2, N = 356); a sample matched to U.S. norms for age, gender, race, income, Census region (Study 3, N = 1,063); a YouGov sample matched to U.S. demographic norms (Study 4, N = 2,000); and a brief, one-month longitudinal study of Mechanical Turk workers in the U.S. (Study 5, Baseline N = 499, follow-up n = 296), and a large, one-week YouGov sample matched to U.S. demographic norms (Baseline N = 2,519, follow-up n = 1,776). Across studies, we found initial support for the validity of Moral Grandstanding as a construct. Specifically, moral grandstanding motivation was associated with status-seeking personality traits, as well as greater political and moral conflict in daily life.


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