People are less likely to harshly judge a friend or family member who acts unethically than they would a stranger

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When people behave badly or unethically, their loved ones may judge them less harshly than they would judge a stranger who committed the same transgressions, but that leniency may come at the cost of the judger’s own sense of self-worth, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“How do we react when our romantic partners, friends or family members behave unethically? Past research tells us a lot about how we respond to a stranger’s unethical behavior, but very little about how we respond when the perpetrator is someone we care deeply about,” said lead author Rachel Forbes, MA, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

“When someone close to us behaves unethically, we face a conflict between upholding our moral values and maintaining our relationship. We conducted this research to better understand this conflict.”

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers conducted a series of four experiments involving more than 1,100 participants. In one experiment, participants read about a hypothetical situation in which a romantic partner, a close friend or a stranger committed an unethical or immoral act, such as stealing money from a charity collection jar.

In another experiment, participants were asked to recall a moment when they had witnessed a romantic partner, close friend or stranger commit an unethical or immoral act. In a third experiment, participants kept a log of moral transgressions they witnessed each day for 15 days.

In each experiment participants answered a series of questions about the person who committed the act, the severity of the act and how harshly the transgressor should be punished. Participants also answered questions about how they felt about themselves, including any negative emotions they experienced and their own sense of morality.

In all three experiments, researchers found participants felt less anger, contempt and disgust toward family and close friends who behaved badly. They rated them as more moral and wanted to punish or criticize them less than strangers.

However, participants also felt more shame, guilt and embarrassment and reported somewhat more negative evaluations of their own morality when someone close to them committed a moral or ethical violation.

In the fourth experiment, participants were physically paired with a romantic partner, a close friend or a relative stranger. They were then taken to separate rooms and asked to respond in writing to a series of questions about themselves.

The pairs then swapped answers (via a research assistant) and were told to transcribe them into a book. In the first round, the partners received genuine answers, but in the second round, participants were given fake responses indicating their partner had behaved unethically, by lying, plagiarizing or acting selfishly.

As in previous experiments, participants then answered a series of questions about their partner, the transgression, how harsh the punishment should be and their feelings about themselves. The results were similar to the first three experiments, but the effect was not as strong.

Forbes believes the less consistent effects observed in the fourth experiment may be because the unethical information presented to participants in this study was unknown to the participants prior to the experiment and was first shared with them in a very brazen way by a stranger.

“It’s possible that participants were upset with their close others because they did not tell the participant about the unethical acts beforehand and instead chose to tell the researcher. Hearing about an unethical behavior by someone you care about from a stranger is likely to be a bit more jarring than hearing about it directly from your friend or loved one,” she said.

“Across a diverse range of methods with both student and online samples, our findings suggest that having a close relationship with the transgressor heavily affects responses to their bad behavior, supporting the call for social-relational factors to be more strongly incorporated into models of moral judgment,” said Forbes.

The findings are important because, in everyday life, unethical behaviors are often entwined with social ties, according to co-author Jennifer Stellar, PhD, also from the University of Toronto.

“Identifying that observers are more lenient toward close others who transgress raises deeper concerns about how moral norms are policed by individuals in these situations,” she said. “This may allow people to either overlook and/or fail to call out transgressions committed by close others, which poses a danger for maintaining the moral norms in society.”

The researchers focused on close relationships, but Stellar believes that the same processes may apply to other relationships, such as shared group membership, and that should be incorporated in future research.

“One important limitation in our work is that we did not examine responses to extremely severe immoral actions,” said Forbes. “Highly immoral acts would certainly place a greater strain on the relationship and therefore could show different effects.”

One relevant example she often uses when talking about this work is a quote by “TODAY” host Savannah Guthrie in response to the accusations of sexual misconduct against Guthrie’s colleague and friend Matt Lauer. Guthrie responded to news of the accusations on air, saying,

“We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”

“In the case of very severe unethical actions, the conflict with one’s moral values is likely more apparent. We don’t yet know how close others may respond because this is very difficult to study,” said Forbes.

Another limitation was that the participants in the first three experiments were approximately 80% white.

“Our paper provides an initial step in understanding responses to the unethical behavior of close others, but future research should try to more adequately represent not only a more racially diverse sample, but also diversity in sexual orientation, which is particularly relevant to the study of romantic relationships,” she said.


Moral judgment is the evaluation of a certain behavior as good or bad, or as right or wrong. The goal of moral psychology is to clarify why individuals make the judgments they do about moral issues. Research on moral judgments has been especially influenced by the two most important normative ethics theories of the last several centuries, that is deontology and utilitarianism. Both theories prescribe logic for determining the morality of behavior.

A deontological perspective is one that evaluates a behavior as right or wrong based on the action itself. A utilitarian perspective is one that evaluates a behavior as right or wrong based on the outcome of the action. In the field of moral psychology, the “moral dilemma” is a classic moral judgment problem that has been used in numerous studies to discover people’s tendency to make moral judgments in various situations.

Theory and Models

Existing models of how people make moral judgments are organized around two basic objectives (Guglielmo, 2015). Information Models have the goal of identifying the specific information content that forms the basis of people’s moral judgments: the various aspects of the behavior, the extent to which the actor’s relevant characteristics lead people to believe that the actor is responsible and reprehensible, such as the causation of agents’ behavior (Lagnado and Channon, 2008), the actor’s degree of intent (Darley and Shultz, 1990; Ohtsubo, 2007; Gray et al., 2012), and the actor’s reasons, motivations, and beliefs (Suls and Kalle, 1978; Nelson-Le Gall, 1985; Zelazo et al., 1996; Young and Saxe, 2009; Tannenbaum et al., 2011; Inbar et al., 2012). By contrast, Processing Models have the goal of determining the psychological processes that produce moral judgments, including the extent to which these judgments are driven by intuitive, emotional processing or by thoughtful, rational processing.

These theories on moral judgment focus on the “antecessors” of moral judgment (i.e., the information taken into account and how the information is processed), but they pay little attention to understanding the “consequences” of moral judgment, especially the social consequences (Rom et al., 2017).

Social Perception Based on Other’s Moral Judgments

What are the consequences when people make their moral judgments? One important consequence may be that people’s judgments of moral dilemmas affect how others view them. Haidt (2001) argued that moral judgments are essentially social in nature because they convey important information about the person making the judgment. The assumption is that observers make inferences about a person’s character based on the person’s moral judgments.

Numerous studies have found that people are sensitive to the psychological factors that drive others to make moral decisions (Weiner, 1985; Cushman and Mele, 2008; Pizarro and Tannenbaum, 2011). Recent works have also shown that bystanders make inferences about others’ personalities based on the moral judgments they make (Uhlmann et al., 2013; Kreps and Monin, 2014; Everett et al., 2016; Sacco et al., 2017).

According to research, people who make deontological decisions in moral dilemmas are rated as more empathetic and as having higher moral qualities than those who make utilitarian decisions (Uhlmann et al., 2013), and those who express utilitarian views are considered less moral than those who express deontological views, sometimes even less moral than those who express no clear views at all (Kreps and Monin, 2014).

People who make deontological judgments are also more likely to be chosen as social partners and are considered more moral, likeable, and trustworthy (Everett et al., 2016; Sacco et al., 2017), including being more trustworthy in economic games than those who make utilitarian judgments (Everett et al., 2016).

In several experiments conducted by Rom et al. (2017), participants made inferences about how emotion and cognition affected the moral decision maker’s judgments, and they used this information to infer whether the decision maker was warm or competent. Specifically, participants rated people who made deontological judgments as relatively warm and enthusiastic, whereas people who made utilitarian judgments were rated as relatively competent.

Some researchers (Uhlmann et al., 2015) have proposed human-centered explanations for moral judgments, which focus on individuals rather than behaviors as the unit of moral evaluation analysis. With regard to moral judgment, people are more like intuitive virtue theorists rather than deontologists or utilitarians, who each describe people in a one-sided way. There is growing evidence that individuals are fundamentally motivated to evaluate others on a moral level—people quickly and easily attribute good or bad moral traits to others at an early stage of interaction, with limited information (Goodwin et al., 2014).

Social Situation Influence Moral Judgments

Rom et al. (2017) also raised questions about whether people who are making moral judgments are aware that others may judge them accordingly, and, if so, whether people strategically shift their solution of the dilemma to create an ideal impression. According to the theoretical framework of social cognition (Bandura, 2001), it is usually the interaction of situational factors and individual characteristics that leads people to engage in certain behaviors and to make certain decisions. Moral judgments should also be influenced by social cognitive factors, but most previous studies (Guglielmo, 2015) have ignored this issue. At the very least, there appears to be a conformity effect in moral judgment making.

That is to say, participants appeared to change their publicly presented moral judgment, suggesting that there can be proactive processing in moral judgment (Uhlmann et al., 2009; Liu and Ditto, 2013), and the judgment of moral issues is sensitive to social impact. Similarly, Kundu and Cummins (2013) asked participants to make moral judgments about a range of dilemmas, either alone or in a group that included three confederates.

The results showed a significant conformity effect: compared to participants who made moral judgments by themselves, those in a group made more judgments that were consistent with the other group members’ judgments, even though those judgments were contrary to common sense.

Thus, we speculate that when people make moral judgments in real life, they engage in social cognition and will consider and integrate other information from the outside world as needed to adjust their judgments. In fact, if people believe that conformity with others can maximize the expected value of decision-making, conformity can be seen as a rational choice.

In social interactions, people no longer think only about the event itself, but also plan and evaluate the consequences of their actions, which can be adaptive. It can be inferred that higher-order social cognitive processes are likely to transcend low-order affective and cognitive processing of dilemma judgments (Rom et al., 2017).

Behavior in a social situation has both the significance of fact evaluation and the characteristics of value evaluation. In social behavior, task-oriented motivation (focus on task), and expressive motivation (display of self-related characteristics, impression management) exist simultaneously. Individuals are motivated to engage in active impression management when they realize that their behavior is being or may be evaluated by others.

If individuals want to let others know who they are, they need to package information about themselves and present the information in a concise way to make the desired impression on others. According to Leary and Kowalski (1990), all behaviors can be regarded as self-presentation behaviors. Moral behavior is no exception.

Everyone inevitably plays different social roles at different times and places, each of which has corresponding social expectations (Callero, 1994). In the field of social cognition, numerous studies (Fiske et al., 2002; Abele et al., 2008; Cuddy et al., 2008) have confirmed the existence of people’s common stereotypes and prejudices toward various groups.

As individuals and groups in social situations are evaluated and recognized, they are motivated to convey information to the outside world through their behaviors and decisions (such as decisions regarding moral dilemmas). Especially as a link in the formation of cultural norms, moral judgment not only has important adaptive significance for individuals and groups but also plays an important role in the production of moral ethics and cultural norms in the process of interaction. However, there is still a lack of research on the influence of social cognition and social perceptions on moral judgments. The current study addresses this gap in the literature.

reference link : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8023274/


Original Research: “When the ones we love misbehave: Exploring moral processes within intimate bonds” by Rachel C. Forbes and Jennifer E. Stellar. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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