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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Do People Want to Be More Moral?

Jessie Sun and Geoffrey Goodwin
PsyArXiv Preprints
Originally posted August 26, 2019


Most people want to change some aspects of their personality, but does this phenomenon extend to moral character, and to close others? Targets (N = 800) and well-acquainted informants (N = 958) rated targets’ personality traits and reported how much they wanted the target to change each trait. Targets and informants reported a lower desire to change more morally-relevant traits (e.g., honesty, compassion), compared to less morally-relevant traits (e.g., anxiety, sociability). Moreover, although targets and informants generally wanted targets to improve more on traits that targets had less desirable levels of, targets’ moral change goals were less calibrated to their current levels. Finally, informants wanted targets to change in similar ways, but to a lesser extent, than targets themselves did. These findings shed light on self–other similarities and asymmetries in personality change goals, and suggest that the general desire for self-improvement may be less prevalent in the moral domain.

From the Discussion:

Why don’t people particularly want to be more moral? One possibility is that people see less room for improvement on moral traits, especially given the relatively high ratings on these traits.  Our data cannot speak directly to this possibility, because people might not be claiming that they have the lowest or highest possible levels of each trait when they “strongly disagree” or “strongly agree” with each trait description (Blanton & Jaccard, 2006). Testing this idea would therefore require a more direct measure of where people think they stand, relative to these extremes.

A related possibility is that people are less motivated to improve moral traits because they already see themselves as being quite high on such traits, and therefore morally “good enough”—even if they think they could be morally better (see Schwitzgebel, 2019). Consistent with this idea, supplemental analyses showed that people are less inclined to change the traits that they rate themselves higher on, compared to traits that they rate themselves lower on. However, even controlling for current levels, people are still less inclined to change more morally-relevant traits(see Supplemental Materialfor these within-person analyses), suggesting that additional psychological factors might reducepeople’s desire to change morally-relevant traits.One additional possibility is that people are more motivated to change in ways that will improve their own well-being(Hudson & Fraley, 2016). Whereas becoming less anxious has obvious personal benefits, people might believe that becoming more moral would result in few personal benefits (or even costs).

The research is here.

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