Kevin Lewis

August 14, 2013

Exposure to Moral Relativism Compromises Moral Behavior

Tage Rai & Keith Holyoak
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2013, Pages 995-1001

Across two studies we investigated the relationship between moral relativism versus absolutism and moral behavior. In Experiment 1, we found that participants who read a relativist argument for tolerating female genital mutilation were more likely to cheat to win an incentivized raffle than participants who read an absolutist argument against female genital mutilation, or those in a control condition. In Experiment 2, participants who read a definition of morality phrased in absolutist terms expressed less willingness to engage in petty theft than those who read a definition of morality phrased in relativist terms, or those in a control condition. Experiment 2 also provided evidence that effects were not due to absolutist arguments signaling that fewer behaviors are morally permissible, nor to relativist arguments defending more disagreeable moral positions. Rather, the content of the philosophical positions themselves - the fact that relativism describes morality as subjective and culturally-historically contingent, whereas absolutism describes morality as objective and universal - makes individuals more likely to engage in immoral behaviors when exposed to moral relativism compared to moral absolutism.


Angels and Demons Are Among Us: Assessing Individual Differences in Belief in Pure Evil and Belief in Pure Good

Russell Webster & Donald Saucier
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming

We conducted five studies to demonstrate that individuals' beliefs in pure evil (BPE) and in pure good (BPG) are valid and important psychological constructs. First, these studies together demonstrated that BPE and BPG are reliable, unitary, and stable constructs each composed of eight theoretically interdependent dimensions. Second, these studies showed that across a wide variety of different measures, higher BPE consistently related to greater intergroup aggression (e.g., supporting the death penalty and preemptive military aggression) and less intergroup prosociality (e.g., opposing criminal rehabilitation, proracial policies, and beneficial social programs), while higher BPG consistently related to less intergroup aggression (e.g., opposing proviolent foreign relations and torture) and greater intergroup prosociality (e.g., supporting criminal rehabilitation and support for diplomacy). In sum, these studies evidence that BPE and BPG relate to aggressive and prosocial orientations toward others and have strong potential to advance current theories on prejudice, aggression, and prosociality.


Moral Cleansing and Moral Licenses: Experimental Evidence

Pablo Brañas-Garza et al.
Economics and Philosophy, July 2013, Pages 199-212

Research on moral cleansing and moral self-licensing has introduced dynamic considerations in the theory of moral behaviour. Past bad actions trigger negative feelings that make people more likely to engage in future moral behaviour to offset them. Symmetrically, past good deeds favour a positive self-perception that creates licensing effects, leading people to engage in behaviour that is less likely to be moral. In short, a deviation from a ‘normal state of being' is balanced with a subsequent action that compensates the prior behaviour. We model the decision of an individual trying to reach the optimal level of moral self-worth over time and show that under certain conditions the optimal sequence of actions follows a regular pattern which combines good and bad actions. To explore this phenomenon we conduct an economic experiment where subjects play a sequence of giving decisions (dictator games). We find that donations in the previous period affect present decisions and the sign is negative: participants' behaviour in every round is negatively correlated to what they did in the past. Hence donations over time seem to be the result of a regular pattern of self-regulation: moral licensing (being selfish after altruistic) and cleansing (altruistic after selfish).


The Threat of Moral Refusers for One's Self-Concept and the Protective Function of Physical Cleansing

Florien Cramwinckel et al.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming

We investigated how people respond to moral threats and the consequences this has for one's moral self-concept. In two experiments, participants first tasted a sausage and were then confronted with a bogus participant who had refused to taste the sausage because of moral or non-moral reasons. People disliked the moral refuser more than the non-moral refuser. The self-threatening effect of having one's morals questioned was also reflected in specific patterns of cardiovascular responses and negatively affected participants' self-evaluations. We further show that the negative effects of a moral threat can be prevented by a simple intervention of physical cleansing: Participants who had cleansed their hands before being confronted with a moral refuser did not show the negative effects on self- and refuser evaluations. Importantly, the protective effects of physical cleansing were most pronounced for people with a strong moral identity. Taken together, these results underline the importance of one's self-concept when confronted with a moral refuser, and introduce an effective intervention to prevent these negative consequences.


Feeling Entitled to More: Ostracism Increases Dishonest Behavior

Kai-Tak Poon, Zhansheng Chen & Nathan DeWall
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, September 2013, Pages 1227-1239

Five experiments tested whether ostracism increases dishonesty through increased feelings of entitlement. Compared with included and control participants, ostracized participants indicated higher levels of dishonest intentions (Experiments 1-3) and cheated more to take undeserved money in a behavioral task (Experiments 4 and 5). In addition, increased feelings of entitlement mediated the effect of ostracism on dishonesty (Experiments 3-5). Framing ostracism as beneficial weakened the connection between ostracism, entitlement, and dishonest behavior (Experiment 5). Together, these findings highlight the significance of entitlement in explaining when and why ostracism increases dishonest behavior and how to weaken this relationship.


Sinful Flesh: Sexual Objectification Threatens Women's Moral Self

Zhansheng Chen, Fei Teng & Hong Zhang
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2013, Pages 1042-1048

The current investigation examined whether sexual objectification leads to perceived contamination in women victims, which, in turn, triggers sinful feelings. The results of three experiments provide converging support for these predictions. Female participants reported greater sinful feelings than their non-objectified counterparts, after receiving objectifying comments on their physical appearance from an alleged male partner (Experiment 1) or recalling a past experience of objectification (Experiments 2 and 3). Furthermore, perceived contamination mediated the effect of objectification on sinful feelings. We also found that perceived personal responsibility of being objectified moderated the above effects, such that the effects were only observed among participants who perceived themselves as highly responsible for objectification experience, but not among those who perceived low personal responsibility. These findings contribute to the literature by explaining why objectification elicits sinful feelings in female victims and who is more susceptible to this influence.


Retribution and forgiveness: The healing effects of punishing for just deserts

Peter Strelan & Jan-Willem van Prooijen
European Journal of Social Psychology, forthcoming

Although punishment and forgiveness frequently are considered to be opposites, in the present paper we propose that victims who punish their offender are subsequently more likely to forgive. Notably, punishment means that victims get justice (i.e. just deserts), which facilitates forgiveness. Study 1 reveals that participants were more likely to forgive a friend's negligence after being primed with punishment than after being primed with inability to punish. In Study 2, participants were more forgiving towards a criminal offender if the offender was punished by a judge than if the offender escaped punishment, a finding that was mediated by the just deserts motive. Study 3 was in the context of actual recalled ongoing interpersonal relations and revealed that punishment predicted forgiveness indirectly via just deserts, not via victims' vengeful motivations. It is concluded that punishment facilitates forgiveness because of its capacity to restore a sense of justice.


The Causal Impact of Exposure to Deviant Peers: An Experimental Investigation

Raymond Paternoster et al.
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, forthcoming

Objectives: This study addresses the enduring question about whether exposure to deviant peers causes individuals to engage in deviance. Ample literature comments on this point, but methodological limitations prevent strong conclusions about causality.

Method: The authors conducted a laboratory-based experiment under the guise of a memory/recall study for which participants could earn up to $20. All 91 participants had the opportunity to cheat on a computer-based word recall task by clicking on up to four links that provided access to the words in order to illegitimately earn more money for their performance. In the treatment condition (n = 47), subjects were exposed to a confederate who indicated an intention to cheat, justified this behavior, and cheated on the task.

Results: Whereas none of the participants in the control condition cheated on this task, 38 percent of the participants in the treatment condition did. This effect endures when controlling for various attributes of participants in regression models. Supplemental analyses underscore the notion that clicking on the links reflected cheating rather than curiosity.

Conclusions: This experiment provides evidence that exposure to a deviant peer can cause individuals to engage in deviance. Future experimental work should focus on determining the precise mechanism/mechanisms responsible.


The Whistleblower's Dilemma and the Fairness-Loyalty Tradeoff

Adam Waytz, James Dungan & Liane Young
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2013, Pages 1027-1033

Whistleblowing - reporting another person's unethical behavior to a third party - often constitutes a conflict between competing moral concerns. Whistleblowing promotes justice and fairness but can also appear disloyal. Five studies demonstrate that a fairness-loyalty tradeoff predicts people's willingness to blow the whistle. Study 1 demonstrates that individual differences in valuing fairness over loyalty predict willingness to report unethical behavior. Studies 2a and 2b demonstrate that experimentally manipulating endorsement of fairness versus loyalty increases willingness to report unethical behavior. Study 3 demonstrates that people recall their decisions to report unethical behavior as driven by valuation of fairness, whereas people recall decisions not to report unethical behavior as driven by valuation of loyalty. Study 4 demonstrates that experimentally manipulating the endorsement of fairness versus loyalty increases whistleblowing in an online marketplace. These findings reveal the psychological determinants of whistleblowing and shed light on factors that encourage or discourage this practice.


Folk Retributivism and the Communication Confound

Thomas Nadelhoffer et al.
Economics and Philosophy, July 2013, Pages 235-261

Retributivist accounts of punishment maintain that it is right to punish wrongdoers, even if the punishment has no future benefits. Research in experimental economics indicates that people are willing to pay to punish defectors. A complementary line of work in social psychology suggests that people think that it is right to punish wrongdoers. This work suggests that people are retributivists about punishment. However, all of the extant work contains an important potential confound. The target of the punishment is expected to be aware of the punitive act. Thus, it's possible that people punish because they want to communicate something to the wrongdoer, e.g. disapproval, the presence of a norm, etc. In three studies, we examine whether people will punish even when the punishee will be ignorant. We find that people are no less likely to punish when the punishee will be ignorant. This finding emerges both in a survey study and in a monetized behavioural decision study.


Psychopathic personality and utilitarian moral judgment in college students

Yu Gao & Simone Tang
Journal of Criminal Justice, forthcoming

Purpose: Although psychopathy is characterized by amoral behavior, literature on the association between psychopathy and moral judgment pattern is mixed. Recent evidence suggests that this may be due to the moderation effect of anxiety (Koenigs, Kruepke, Zeier, & Newman, 2011). The current study aims to examine the psychopathy-utilitarian judgment association in college students.

Method: In this study, a group of 302 college students completed a moral judgment test involving hypothetical dilemmas. Their psychopathic traits were assessed by the Psychopathic Personality Inventory - Short Form (PPI-SF) (Lilienfeld & Andrews, 1996).

Results: Individuals with higher psychopathic traits were more likely to make utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas. Furthermore, the association between utilitarian responses and psychopathy was more salient for the behavioral factor of psychopathy (PPI-II), and this association was mediated by self-reported aggression. However, the moderating effect of anxiety was not found.

Conclusions: These results build upon work on utilitarian moral judgment in psychopathic individuals in a non-incarcerated, non-institutionalized sample, and have important implications for the behavioral correction system.


Till death do us part: Terror management and forgiveness in close relationships

Daryl Van Tongeren et al.
Personal Relationships, forthcoming

Two experiments extended terror management theory to investigate forgiveness in close relationships. We hypothesized that mortality salience would elicit less forgiveness in less committed relationships. In Experiment 1, participants were primed with either mortality salience or a physical pain control condition, recalled a recent hurtful interpersonal offense, and reported their degree of forgiveness. Mortality salience evoked less forgiveness in less committed relationships. In Experiment 2, participants were assigned to recall an offense that occurred in a low-commitment or high-commitment relationship. Again, mortality salience elicited less forgiveness in less committed relationships; it elicited more forgiveness in more committed relationships. Moreover, this interaction was mediated by empathy. Existential considerations may play an important role in the functioning of close relationships.


An Exploration of the Dishonest Side of Self-Monitoring: Links to Moral Disengagement and Unethical Business Decision Making

Babatunde Ogunfowora, Joshua Bourdage & Brenda Nguyen
European Journal of Personality, forthcoming

The majority of research on self-monitoring has focused on the positive aspects of this personality trait. The goal of the present research was to shed some light on the potential negative side of self-monitoring and resulting consequences in two independent studies. Study 1 demonstrated that, in addition to being higher on Extraversion, high self-monitors are also more likely to be low on Honesty-Humility, which is characterized by a tendency to be dishonest and driven by self-gain. Study 2 was designed to investigate the consequences of this dishonest side of self-monitoring using two previously unexamined outcomes: moral disengagement and unethical business decision making. Results showed that high self-monitors are more likely to engage in unethical business decision making and that this relationship is mediated by the propensity to engage in moral disengagement. In addition, these negative effects of self-monitoring were found to be due to its low Honesty-Humility aspect, rather than its high Extraversion side. Further investigation showed similar effects for the Other-Directedness and Acting (but not Extraversion) self-monitoring subscales. These findings provide valuable insight into previously unexamined negative consequences of self-monitoring and suggest important directions for future research on self-monitoring.


The Arousal Model of Moral Condemnation

Justin Cheng, Victor Ottati & Erika Price
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2013, Pages 1012-1018

Previous research regarding the affective correlates of moral judgment has emphasized that this relation is rooted in the natural properties of discrete emotions, suggesting that specific emotions (e.g., disgust) increase moral condemnations for specific categories of moral violation (e.g. purity violations). In three experiments, we find that arousal increases the severity of moral condemnations, while emotion specificity effects remain absent. Results are compatible with constructivist approaches to emotion and the feelings as information account of social judgment.


Norm Manipulation, Norm Evasion: Experimental Evidence

Cristina Bicchieri & Alex Chavez
Economics and Philosophy, July 2013, Pages 175-198

Using an economic bargaining game, we tested for the existence of two phenomena related to social norms, namely norm manipulation - the selection of an interpretation of the norm that best suits an individual - and norm evasion - the deliberate, private violation of a social norm. We found that the manipulation of a norm of fairness was characterized by a self-serving bias in beliefs about what constituted normatively acceptable behaviour, so that an individual who made an uneven bargaining offer not only genuinely believed it was fair, but also believed that recipients found it fair, even though recipients of the offer considered it to be unfair. In contrast, norm evasion operated as a highly explicit process. When they could do so without the recipient's knowledge, individuals made uneven offers despite knowing that their behaviour was unfair.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.