Bring Out the Worst

Kevin Lewis

February 11, 2020

Victims, perpetrators, or both? The vicious cycle of disrespect and cynical beliefs about human nature
Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht & Kathleen Vohs
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, forthcoming


We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1’s nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism’s associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6’s weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.

Bad News from the Front and from Above: Bombing Raids, Military Fatalities and the Death Penalty in Nazi Germany
Wayne Geerling et al.
Economic Inquiry, forthcoming


We examine how the decision‐making of political elites respond to an imminent external threat to the existence of the state in times of war. To do so, we exploit exogeneous variation in exposure to battle deaths and bombing raids to estimate the effect of variation in the intensity of war on the probability that individuals charged with treason and/or high treason in Nazi Germany received the death sentence. A doubling of the number of military fatalities as well as bombing raids in the same week in which a defendant was sentenced increased the likelihood of receiving the death penalty by about 10 percentage points.

Experimental evidence of subtle victim blame in the absence of explicit blame
Carolyn Hafer, Alicia Rubel & Caroline Drolet
PLoS ONE, December 2019


We argue that people will often eschew explicit victim blame (e.g., claiming that “X is to blame”) because it is counternormative and socially undesirable, yet they might still engage in subtle victim blame by attributing victims’ suffering to behaviors the victims can control (i.e., “high control causes”). We found support for this argument in three online studies with US residents. In Studies 1 and 2, participants viewed a victim posing either a high threat to the need to believe in a just world, which should heighten the motivation to engage in victim blame, or a low threat. They then rated explicit blame items and attributions for the victim’s suffering. Explicit blame was low overall and not influenced by victim threat. However, participants attributed the high threat victim’s suffering, more than the low threat victim’s suffering, to high control causes, thus showing a subtle blame effect. In Study 2, explicit blame and subtle blame were less strongly associated (in the high threat condition) for individuals high in socially desirable responding. These results are consistent with our argument that explicit and subtle blame diverge in part due to social desirability concerns. In Study 3, most participants believed others viewed the explicit blame items, but not the attribution items, as assessing blame. Thus, attributions to high control causes can be seen as “subtle” in the sense that people believe others will view such statements as reflecting constructs other than blame. Our studies suggest a way of responding to innocent victims that could be particularly relevant in a modern context, given increasing social undesirability of various negative responses to disadvantaged and victimized individuals.

Body Maps of Moral Concerns
Mohammad Atari, Aida Mostafazadeh Davani & Morteza Dehghani
Psychological Science, forthcoming


It has been proposed that somatosensory reaction to varied social circumstances results in feelings (i.e., conscious emotional experiences). Here, we present two preregistered studies in which we examined the topographical maps of somatosensory reactions associated with violations of different moral concerns. Specifically, participants in Study 1 (N = 596) were randomly assigned to respond to scenarios involving various moral violations and were asked to draw key aspects of their subjective somatosensory experience on two 48,954-pixel silhouettes. Our results show that body patterns corresponding to different moral violations are felt in different regions of the body depending on whether individuals are classified as liberals or conservatives. We also investigated how individual differences in moral concerns relate to body maps of moral violations. Finally, we used natural-language processing to predict activation in body parts on the basis of the semantic representation of textual stimuli. We replicated these findings in a nationally representative sample in Study 2 (N = 300). Overall, our findings shed light on the complex relationships between moral processes and somatosensory experiences.

Crime and punishment: Morality judgment in a foreign language
Evy Woumans, Ine Van der Cruyssen & Wouter Duyck
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, forthcoming


The current study examined whether use of a foreign language affects the manner in which people evaluate a criminal situation. We employed a range of crime scenarios, for which severity judgment scores were obtained. Crimes that were written in a foreign language were systematically evaluated as less severe compared with the same cases described in the native language. We propose that these differences may be due to attenuated emotional processing in a nonnative language. Crucially, this observed variation in severity judgment may also affect magistrates and police interrogators confronted with crime scenarios formulated in a foreign tongue. This in turn would have inevitable consequences for the penalty they will or will not exact on the suspect.

A little good is good enough: Ethical consumption, cheap excuses, and moral self-licensing
Jannis Engel & Nora Szech
PLoS ONE, January 2020


This paper explores the role of cheap excuses in product choice. If agents feel that they fulfill one ethical aspect, they may care less about other independent ethical facets within product choice. Choosing a product that fulfills one ethical aspect may then suffice for maintaining a high moral self-image in agents and render it easier to ignore other ethically relevant aspects they would otherwise care about more. The use of such cheap excuses could thus lead to a “static moral self-licensing” effect, and this would extend the logic of the well-known dynamic moral self-licensing. Our experimental study provides empirical evidence that the static counterpart of moral self-licensing exists. Furthermore, effects spill over to unrelated, ethically relevant contexts later in time. Thus, static moral self-licensing and dynamic moral self-licensing can exist next to each other. However, it is critical that agents do not feel that they fulfilled an ethical criterion out of sheer luck, that is, agents need some room so that they can attribute the ethical improvement at least partly to themselves. Outsiders, although monetarily incentivized for correct estimates, are completely oblivious to the effects of moral self-licensing, both static and dynamic.

Universals and variations in moral decisions made in 42 countries by 70,000 participants
Edmond Awad et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 4 February 2020, Pages 2332-2337


When do people find it acceptable to sacrifice one life to save many? Cross-cultural studies suggested a complex pattern of universals and variations in the way people approach this question, but data were often based on small samples from a small number of countries outside of the Western world. Here we analyze responses to three sacrificial dilemmas by 70,000 participants in 10 languages and 42 countries. In every country, the three dilemmas displayed the same qualitative ordering of sacrifice acceptability, suggesting that this ordering is best explained by basic cognitive processes rather than cultural norms. The quantitative acceptability of each sacrifice, however, showed substantial country-level variations. We show that low relational mobility (where people are more cautious about not alienating their current social partners) is strongly associated with the rejection of sacrifices for the greater good (especially for Eastern countries), which may be explained by the signaling value of this rejection. We make our dataset fully available as a public resource for researchers studying universals and variations in human morality.

The role of moral reasoning & personality in explaining lyrical preferences
Kyle Messick & Blanca Aranda
PLoS ONE, January 2020


Previous research has supported that personality traits can act to a precursor to media preferences. Due to the ongoing association between morality and media preferences in public and political discourse (e.g., blaming immoral behaviours on media preferences), this research sought to expand the knowledge about factors that contribute to media preferences by investigating if moral reasoning styles explain some of the variance that was not already explained by personality traits. A specific form of media preferences were chosen - lyrical preferences in metal music - as claims between metal lyrical themes and behaviour have been ongoing since the 1980s, despite a lack of empirical evidence to support these claims. A lyrical preferences scale was developed, and utilizing this scale, it was found that different types of metal fans exhibit different moral reasoning styles dependent on their metal sub-genre identification. Further, it was found that moral reasoning styles explain a portion of the variance in lyrical preferences that weren’t already explained by personality traits. In particular, lyrical preferences were often thematically consistent with moral reasoning content and personality traits, such as that individuals that preferred lyrics about celebrating metal culture and unity had higher levels of the group loyalty moral reasoning domain alongside being higher in extraversion. The implications of moral reasoning styles and personality traits as being precursors to media preferences are discussed.

What We Owe to Family: The Impact of Special Obligations on Moral Judgment
Ryan McManus, Max Kleiman-Weiner & Liane Young
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Although people often recognize the moral value of impartial behavior (i.e., not favoring specific individuals), it is unclear when, if ever, people recognize the moral value of partiality. The current studies investigated whether information about special obligations to specific individuals, particularly kin, is integrated into moral judgments. In Studies 1 and 2, agents who helped a stranger were judged as more morally good and trustworthy than those who helped kin, but agents who helped a stranger, instead of kin were judged as less morally good and trustworthy than those who did the opposite. In Studies 3 and 4, agents who simply neglected a stranger were judged as less morally bad and untrustworthy than those who neglected kin. Study 4 also demonstrated that the violation (vs. fulfillment) of perceived obligations underlaid all judgment patterns. Study 5 demonstrated boundary conditions: When occupying roles requiring impartiality, agents who helped a stranger instead of kin were judged as more morally good and trustworthy than agents who did the opposite. These findings illuminate the importance of obligations in structuring moral judgment.

Honesty biases trustworthiness impressions
Gabriele Bellucci & Soyoung Park
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, forthcoming


Honesty is central to trust and trustworthiness. However, how a good reputation as honest person is learned and induces trustworthiness impressions is still unexplored. Developing a novel paradigm, we show in 3 consecutive experiments that individuals prefer trusting honest others who share truthful information, especially if honest behavior is consistent over time. Trust in honest others was independent of proximal benefits, and honest individuals were repaid for their honesty with higher trust in a subsequent interaction. Crucially, signs of dishonesty decreased trust but only in those who had not previously built a good reputation as honest partners. On the contrary, those who could establish a good reputation were trusted even when they were no longer trustworthy, suggesting that participants could not successfully track changes in trustworthiness of those with an established good reputation. These findings suggest that a good reputation biases the ability to learn the momentary trustworthiness of another person and impairs the updating of one’s beliefs about the other’s character for behavior revision. Computational modeling analyses indicate an asymmetry in information integration when interacting with honest individuals that likely underlies such learning impairment. By showing how a good reputation influences learning processes in trust-based interactions, our results provide a mechanistic account for biases in social learning and social interactions, advancing our understanding of social behaviors in particular and human cognition in general.

Enhancement in dopamine reduces generous behaviour in women
Sergio Oroz Artigas et al.
PLoS ONE, December 2019


Generosity is a human behavior common in social contexts. However, humans are not equally generous to everyone alike. Instead, generosity decreases as a function of social distance, an effect called social discounting. Studies show that such social discounting effect depends on diverse factors including personality traits, cultures, stress or hormonal levels. Recently, the importance of the neurotransmitter dopamine in regulating social interactions has been highlighted. However, it remains unclear how exactly dopamine agonist administration modulates generous behavior as a function of social discounting. Here, we investigate the causal effect of dopamine agonist administration on social discounting in a pharmacological intervention study. We employ a randomized, double-blind, within-subject design to investigate the impact of the D2/D3 receptor agonist pramipexole on social discounting by keeping gender constant. We apply hyperbolic social discount model to the data and provide evidence that women under pramipexole become less generous in general, especially towards close others. Our results highlight the crucial role of dopamine in social decision making.

Gratitude increases third-party punishment
Jonathan Vayness, Fred Duong & David DeSteno
Cognition and Emotion, forthcoming


Third-party punishment occurs when a perpetrator of a transgression is punished by another person who was not directly affected by the transgression (i.e. a third-party). Given gratitude’s demonstrated ability to enhance both cooperation and the value people place on future-rewards, its capacity to increase third-party punishment - a phenomenon theorised to increase future cooperative behaviour - was investigated. In two experiments, participants were randomly assigned to experience one of three emotional states (i.e. gratitude, happiness, or neutrality) prior to making decisions about how much of a previous financial endowment they would spend to punish a person who transgressed against another at differing degrees within the context of a dictator game. As expected, punishment expenditures decreased for all participants as a dictator’s decision became fairer. Of primary interest, however, participants who felt grateful, as compared to those who felt neutral or happy, engaged in significantly more third-party punishment across dictator splits that were not altruistic in nature.


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