Vives, M., Cikara, M., & FeldmanHall, O.
(2021, February 5).
People learn by observing others, albeit not uniformly. Witnessing an immoral behavior causes observers to commit immoral actions, especially when the perpetrator is part of the in-group. Does conformist behavior hold when observing the out-group? We conducted three experiments (N=1,358) exploring how observing an (im)moral in-/out-group member changed decisions relating to justice: Punitive, selfish, or dishonest choices. Only immoral in-groups increased immoral actions, while the same immoral behavior from out-groups had no effect. In contrast, a compassionate or generous individual did not make people more moral, regardless of group membership. When there was a loophole to deny cheating, neither an immoral in-/out-group member changed dishonest behavior. Compared to observing an honest in-group member, people become more honest themselves after observing an honest out-group member, revealing that out-groups can enhance morality. Depending on the severity of the moral action, the in-group licenses immoral behavior while the out-group buffers against it.
Choosing compassion over punishment, generosity over selfishness, and honesty over dishonesty is the byproduct of many factors, including virtue-signaling, norm compliance, and self-interest. There are times, however, when moral choices are shaped by the mere observation of what others do in the same situation (Gino & Galinsky, 2012; Nook et al., 2016). Here, we investigated how moral decisions are shaped by one’s in-or out-group—a factor known to shift willingness to conform (Gino et al., 2009). Conceptually replicating past research (Gino et al., 2009), results reveal that immoral behaviors were only transmitted by the in-group: while participants became more punitive or selfish after observing a punitive or selfish in-group, they did not increase their immoral behavior after observing an immoral out-group (Experiments 1 & 2). However, when the same manipulation was deployed in a context where the immoral acts could not be traced, neither the dishonest in- nor out-group member produced any behavioral shifts in our subjects (Experiment 3). These results suggest that immoral behaviors are not transmitted equally by all individuals. Rather, they are more likely to be transmitted within groups than between groups. In contrast, pro-social behaviors were rarely transmitted by either group. Participants did not become more compassionate or generous after observing a compassionate or generous in-or out-group member (Experiments 1 & 2). We only find modifications for prosocial behavior when participants observe another participant behaving in a costly honest manner, and this was modulated by group membership. Witnessing an honest out-group member attenuated the degree to which participants themselves cheated compared to participants who witnessed an honest in-group member (see Table 1 for a summary of results). Together, these findings suggest that the transmission of moral corruption is both determined by group membership and is sensitive to the degree of moral transgression. Namely, given the findings from Experiment 3, in-groups appear to license moral corruption, while virtuous out-groups can buffer against it.