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Thursday, July 5, 2018

On the role of descriptive norms and subjectivism in moral judgment

Andrew E. Monroe, Kyle D. Dillon, Steve Guglielmo, Roy F. Baumeister
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 77, July 2018, Pages 1-10.


How do people evaluate moral actions, by referencing objective rules or by appealing to subjective, descriptive norms of behavior? Five studies examined whether and how people incorporate subjective, descriptive norms of behavior into their moral evaluations and mental state inferences of an agent's actions. We used experimental norm manipulations (Studies 1–2, 4), cultural differences in tipping norms (Study 3), and behavioral economic games (Study 5). Across studies, people increased the magnitude of their moral judgments when an agent exceeded a descriptive norm and decreased the magnitude when an agent fell below a norm (Studies 1–4). Moreover, this differentiation was partially explained via perceptions of agents' desires (Studies 1–2); it emerged only when the agent was aware of the norm (Study 4); and it generalized to explain decisions of trust for real monetary stakes (Study 5). Together, these findings indicate that moral actions are evaluated in relation to what most other people do rather than solely in relation to morally objective rules.


• Five studies tested the impact of descriptive norms on judgments of blame and praise.

• What is usual, not just what is objectively permissible, drives moral judgments.

• Effects replicate even when holding behavior constant and varying descriptive norms.

• Agents had to be aware of a norm for it to impact perceivers' moral judgments.

• Effects generalize to explain decisions of trust for real monetary stakes.

The research is here.