SPSP 2012: The Year Of Morality Research

SPSP may as well have called this the “Year of Morality,” since there were so many interesting-looking sessions, posters, and talks on morality and injustice! I was able to attend 2 symposia on this topic while at SPSP. One set of talks looked more at what it means to be a moral person from the personality side of things, and the other looked at morality from more of a social psychological perspective.

First up was the symposium on moral personality (chaired, as it so happens, by my phenomenal friend Pat Hill). There were four great talks during this session, including some interesting information from Kathryn Bollich on how self- and other-ratings of moral traits differ, and a talk from Erik Noftle on the subtle differences between “personality traits” and “character.” The other two talks dealt with issues surrounding dispositional forgivingness (or the general tendency to forgive people). First, according to Mathias Allemand, people actually become more dispositionally forgiving as they get older. This is a good thing; even though you don’t necessarily want to be a “doormat,” highly forgiving people experience less stress and are better at regulating negative affect. Pat Hill also discussed some research dealing with dispositional forgivingness, describing a study in which forgiving and unforgiving participants read about an ambiguous situation that could have been interpreted as a minor, racially discriminatory incident, but was not clearly intended to appear that way. Highly forgiving people were very unlikely to perceive the incident as racially discriminatory, regardless of their racial backgrounds. However, within the group of unforgiving people, minorities were significantly more likely than all of the other groups to perceive the incident as racially discriminatory and feel troubled as a result.

This all has some pretty cool (and important) implications for health and general well-being. Even though it’s good to recognize subtle forms of discrimination when it’s actually occurring (see my recent post on benevolent sexism here), you don’t really want to always see discrimination where it doesn’t actually exist; this correlates with poor outcomes, like bad health and negative emotions. Being forgiving is a good thing for your health and well-being, and this research says some interesting stuff about how this changes with age and how it impacts the way in which we perceive (and are impacted by) the world around us.

Later that day I attended two of the talks in another symposium on morality (“Virtues and Violations: Coping With Immorality and Injustice”), which covered some great research on how people deal with immorality in our everyday lives.

For example, doesn’t it seem odd that there are plenty of celebrities who do all sorts of immoral acts, yet some manage to rebound in the public eye more successfully than others? Jonathan Berman discussed some work on the difference between moral decoupling and moral rationalization, and how these concepts might have something to do with that phenomenon.

Ben Roethlisberger

As an example, take Ben Roethlisberger, the football player who was twice accused of sexual assault. Moral rationalization is when someone decides to think about an “immoral” act as less immoral (e.g. “What Roethlisberger did really wasn’t so bad.”) Moral decoupling, on the other hand, is when someone makes the decision to separate someone’s moral actions from his/her performance in another domain (e.g. “What Roethlisberger did was really bad, but he’s a really good football player, so I can still root for the Steelers because his football performance has nothing to do with his personal life.”)

According to this research, when people engage in moral decoupling, it’s easier for that public figure to “rebound” and suffer fewer public consequences for his/her immoral actions. This might be impacted by things like how the immoral behavior is covered in the news; are evening news programs or talk shows trying to separate the public figure’s bad actions from his/her performance in sports, acting, or music? If so, they may be helping that celebrity “recover” in the public eye.

In the next talk, Yoel Inbar discussed what happens when people are unfairly rewarded. As previous research has already shown, when people are wronged, they tend to want the person who wronged them to suffer as well – an “eye for an eye.” However, wouldn’t you think that if people were unfairly rewarded – say, by given extra money that they didn’t earn – they would be happy to enjoy their good fortune? As it turns out, not necessarily! People who feel like they were unjustly rewarded ended up giving more money away when given the chance, especially when they had strong pre-existing beliefs in a just world. So, there is hope for mankind after all – our crushing feelings of guilt just might be enough to motivate us to make the world a fair place.


Allemand, M. (2008). Age differences in forgivingness: The role of future time perspective Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (5), 1137-1147 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.02.009

Hill, P., Allemand, M., & Burrow, A. (2010). Identity development and forgivingness: Tests of basic relations and mediational pathways Personality and Individual Differences, 49 (5), 497-501 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.011

Bhattacharjee, A., Berman, J.Z., & Reed II, A. Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger: How Moral Decoupling Enables Consumers to Admire and Admonish. Manuscript Under Review.

Photograph of Ben Roethlisberger by Joey Gannon via Wikimedia


3 responses to “SPSP 2012: The Year Of Morality Research

  1. Pingback: Morality | Pearltrees

  2. This is some very helpful information, so if people find that they are given more than they deserve, they are more likely to give more to others, does that take into account if they feel that what they are giving to deserves it more or does it no longer matter and they will give more no matter what? Also, isn’t the use of Moral decoupling a way of fooling our minds from seeing the actually fault of said person? If we don’t want to believe someone did something bad, something we find unacceptable, we use this as a way around accepting the fault.

    • Hi Rachel,

      Thanks for your comment! I learned this information from attending a series of 15-minute talks, so I don’t really know all of the details. As for your first comment, from what I can recall, the way the researchers tested it was by bringing people into an experiment and either telling them that they performed well enough to earn a given amount of money (and then gave them money), that they didn’t (and then they didn’t give them money), or that they didn’t perform well enough to earn the money, but they had extra, so they would give them money anyway. Then they asked the participants how much they would donate (I can’t remember what they were donating to…), and the ones who hadn’t really earned the money gave more, probably because they felt guilty. I don’t know how this would apply to feeling that another person deserves it more. That’s a good question!

      As for the decoupling, I’m not sure that decoupling is necessarily about ignoring faults. The reason why I say that is that the researchers contrasted it with rationalization, which actually involves the process of thinking that what someone did “wasn’t really that bad,” and people find rationalization much harder than decoupling (since, typically, people know that immoral acts are…immoral). I think the point they were trying to make is that it’s easier for us to deal with “decoupling” precisely because we can still admit that the person did something wrong, and still allow ourselves to like the things they do right (like, play football or act or sing), rather than having to deny they did anything wrong at all, which is harder to wrap our heads around. I hope this makes sense!

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