Virtue Signals

Kevin Lewis

January 18, 2024

Empathy Trends in American Youth Between 1979 and 2018: An Update
Sara Konrath et al.
Social Psychological and Personality Science, forthcoming 


Previous research has found declining dispositional empathy among American youth from 1979 to 2009. We update these trends until 2018, using three datasets. Study 1 presents a cross-temporal meta-analysis of undergraduates’ empathy (Interpersonal Reactivity Index), finding significant cubic trends over time: perspective taking (PT) and empathic concern (EC) both increased since 2009. Study 2 conceptually replicated these findings using nationally representative datasets, also showing increasing PT (Study 2a: American Freshman Survey) and EC (Study 2b: Monitoring the Future Survey) since 2009. We include economic, interpersonal, and worldview covariates to test for potential explanations, finding evidence that empathy trends may be related to recent changes in interpersonal dynamics.

Attitudes and Laws About Abortion Are Linked to Extrinsic Mortality Risk: A Life-History Perspective on Variability in Reproductive Rights
Elena Brandt & Jon Maner
Psychological Science, forthcoming 


Abortion policy is conventionally viewed as a political matter with religious overtones. This article offers a different view. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, abortion at a young age can represent prioritization of long-term development over immediate reproduction, a pattern established in other animal species as resulting from stable ecologies with low mortality risk. We examine whether laws and moral beliefs about abortions are linked to local mortality rates. Data from 50 U.S. states, 202 world societies, 2,596 adult individuals in 363 U.S. counties, and 147,260 respondents across the globe suggest that lower levels of mortality risk are associated with more permissive laws and attitudes toward abortion. Those associations were observed when we controlled for religiosity, political ideology, wealth, education, and industrialization. Integrating evolutionary and cultural perspectives offers an explanation as to why moral beliefs and legal norms about reproduction may be sensitive to levels of ecological adversity.

Psychological pillars of support for free speech: Tolerance for offensive, disagreeing, socially divisive, and heterodox speech
Michael Zakharin & Timothy Bates
Personality and Individual Differences, March 2024 


Freedom of speech is a core value in free and democratic societies, but its psychological characteristics are not well understood. Here, we test a model of support for freedom of speech consisting of four correlated dimensions: 1) Tolerance of offensive speech, 2) Tolerance of disagreement, 3) Tolerance of heterodox speech, and 4) Tolerance of socially divisive speech. Study 1 (N = 809) supported this model, finding that freedom of speech measures fit this four-factor structure well and showed strong external validity. Replication (Study 2, N = 721) confirmed this four-factor structure and its external validity. The scales also showed strong discriminant validity, e.g., MFQ-2 moral foundations accounted for <3 % of freedom of speech variance. A third study confirmed the 7-month test-retest reliability of the scales. In summary, support for free speech could be measured validly and reliably, spanning multiple dimensions and providing a firm base for research on this essential trait. It was robust to potential confounders of personality and moral domains, suggesting that variation in support for freedom of speech may index a separate “liberty” moral foundation.

Are rules made to be broken? Conspiracy exposure promotes aggressive behavior
Kai-Tak Poon, Rheal Chan & Hill-Son Lai
Political Psychology, forthcoming 


Individuals often come across political conspiracy theories in various daily encounters. Researchers have mainly investigated predictors of conspiracy beliefs; meanwhile, the psychological and behavioral consequences of conspiracy exposure remain less known. In four experimental studies (total valid N = 1,091) with U.S. and Chinese participants, we examined whether conspiracy exposure promotes aggressive behavior and tested several potential mechanisms underlying the effect. We also tested whether reinforcing the importance of following rules weakens conspiracy exposure's effect on aggression. Our results revealed that conspiracy exposure increases aggression through a greater tendency to break rules (Experiments 1–3). We also ruled out two alternative mechanisms because neither sense of control (Experiment 2) nor negative mood (Experiment 3) accounted for conspiracy exposure's effect on aggression, and rule-breaking tendencies still significantly mediated the effect after we controlled for these factors. Finally, increasing the perceived importance of rules weakened conspiracy exposure's effect on aggression (Experiment 4). Taken together, this research carries significant implications for how exposure to political conspiracy theories influences people's aggression. Our findings also lend themselves practically to the development of strategies for reducing the negative impacts of political conspiracy theories.

Personal Misconduct Elicits Harsher Professional Consequences for Artists (vs. Scientists): A Moral-Decoupling Process
Joseph Siev & Jacob Teeny
Psychological Science, forthcoming 


Recent years have brought increased accountability for personal misconduct, yet often, unequal consequences have resulted from similar offenses. Findings from a unique archival data set (N = 619; all university faculty) and three preregistered experiments (N = 2,594) show that the perceived artistic-versus-scientific nature of the offender’s professional contributions influences the professional punishment received. In Study 1, analysis of four decades of university sexual-misconduct cases reveals that faculty in artistic (vs. scientific) fields have on average received more severe professional consequences. Study 2 demonstrates this experimentally, offering mediational evidence that greater difficulty morally decoupling art (vs. science) contributes to the phenomenon. Study 3 provides further evidence for this mechanism through experimental moderation. Finally, Study 4 shows that merely framing an individual’s work as artistic versus scientific results in replication of these effects. Several potential alternative mechanisms to moral decoupling are tested but not supported. Practical and theoretical implications are discussed.

If not me, then who? Responsibility and replacement
Sarah Wu & Tobias Gerstenberg
Cognition, January 2024 


How do people hold others responsible? Responsibility judgments are affected not only by what actually happened, but also by what could have happened if things had turned out differently. Here, we look at how replaceability -- the ease with which a person could have been replaced by someone else -- affects responsibility. We develop the counterfactual replacement model, which runs simulations of alternative scenarios to determine the probability that the outcome would have differed if the person of interest had been replaced. The model predicts that a person is held more responsible, the more difficult it would have been to replace them. To test the model’s predictions, we design a paradigm that quantitatively varies replaceability by manipulating the number of replacements and the probability with which each replacement would have been available. Across three experiments featuring increasingly complex scenarios, we show that the model explains participants’ responsibility judgments well in both social and physical settings, and better than alternative models that rely only on features of what actually happened.

All You Nonconformists Are (Not) All Alike: Dissociable Social Stereotypes of Mavericks and Contrarians
Brian Haas et al.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming 


While some people easily align themselves with others, others find themselves less aligned with sociocultural norms (e.g., nonconformists). Though people outside the mainstream tend to capture societies’ attention, very little known is regarding how nonconformists are construed. In these studies, we investigated how different types of nonconformists are stereotyped. We sought to elucidate common and dissociable social stereotypes of two types of nonconformity; mavericks and contrarians, driven toward independence versus being different, respectively. We found that mavericks are construed as highly competent and conscientious, well suited for leadership roles, and more likely to be male, older, and satisfied with their life. Contrarians are construed as highly social, low in warmth and agreeableness, highly neurotic, well suited for roles involving creativity and self-expression, and more likely to be female, younger, and less satisfied with their lives. We situate these findings within models linking cultural context with conformity.

Are rules meant to be broken? When and why consistent rule-following undermines versus enhances trust
Michael White, Emma Levine & Alexander Kristal
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, March 2024 


Although consistency has long been positioned as a cornerstone of trust, the present paper examines when and why consistent rule-following undermines versus enhances trust. Across six preregistered experiments (total N = 2649), we study trust in decision-makers (e.g., police officers, managers) who either consistently punish offenders according to codified rules (e.g., laws, policies) or who exercise discretion by occasionally deviating from rules. We find that people are more likely to trust decision-makers that exercise discretion rather than consistently follow rules, to the extent that discretion signals benevolence. The degree to which discretion is perceived as benevolent, and therefore trustworthy, depends on what type of discretion is exercised, how the decision is reached, to whom discretion is applied, and the nature of the transgressions being punished. Specifically, people reward decision-makers who use discretion leniently (rather than punitively) and apply it thoughtfully (rather than arbitrarily). Moreover, only certain cases of punishment are deemed appropriate for discretion. When discretion is perceived to be motivated by favoritism because it is applied to close others, or when the basis for discretion is unclear because there is little variance in cases of the crime being punished, discretion fails to signal benevolence and elicit trust. This research has important implications for understanding trust, discretion, and the reputational consequences of punishment.


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