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Monday, May 4, 2020

Differential virtue discounting: Public generosity is seen as more selfish than public impartiality

Kraft-Todd, G., Kleiman-Weiner, M., & Young, L.
(2020, March 25).


There is a paradox in our desire to be seen as virtuous. If we do not overtly display our virtues, others will not be able to see them; yet, if we do overtly display our virtues, others may think that we do so only for social credit. Here, we investigate how virtue signaling works across two distinct virtues—generosity and impartiality—in eleven online experiments (total N=4,586). We demonstrate the novel phenomenon of differential virtue discounting, revealing that participants perceive actors who demonstrate virtue in public to be less virtuous than actors who demonstrate virtue in private, and, critically, that this effect is greater for generosity than impartiality. Further, we provide evidence for the mechanism underlying these judgments, showing that they are mediated by perceived selfish motivations. We discuss how these findings and our novel terminology can shed light on open questions in the social perception of reputation and motivation.

From the Discussion

We all want to be seen as virtuous. The paradox of this desire is that the best way to be seen as virtuous is to be virtuous in public; yet, if we are virtuous in public—as we have shown here—observers may believe our behavior to be selfishly motivated. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: “The nicest feeling in the world is to do a good deed anonymously—and have somebody find out.”