Yudkin, D. A., et al. (2019, April 12).
A key function of morality is to regulate social behavior. Research suggests moral values may be divided into two types: binding values, which govern behavior in groups, and individualizing values, which promote personal rights and freedoms. Because people tend to mentally activate concepts in situations in which they may prove useful, the importance they afford moral values may vary according to whom they are with in the moment. In particular, because binding values help regulate communal behavior, people may afford these values more importance when in the presence of close (versus distant) others. Five studies test and support this hypothesis. First, we use a custom smartphone application to repeatedly record participants’ (n = 1,166) current social context and the importance they afforded moral values. Results show people rate moral values as more important when in the presence of close others, and this effect is stronger for binding than individualizing values—an effect that replicates in a large preregistered online sample (n = 2,016). A lab study (n = 390) and two preregistered online experiments (n = 580 and n = 752) provides convergent evidence that people afford binding, but not individualizing, values more importance when in the real or imagined presence of close others. Our results suggest people selectively activate different moral values according to the demands of the situation, and show how the mere presence of others can affect moral thinking.
Centuries of thought in moral philosophy suggest that the purpose of moral values is to regulate social behavior. However, the psychology underlying this process remains underspecified. Here we show that the mere presence of close others increases the importance people afford binding moral values. By contrast, individualizing values are not reliably associated with relational context. In other words, people appear to selectively activate those moral values most relevant to their current social situation. This “moral activation” may play a functional role by helping people to abide by the relevant moral values in a given relational context and monitor adherence to those values in others.
Our results are consistent with the view that different values play different functional roles in social life. Past research contrasts the values that encourage cohesion in groups and relationships with those that emphasize individual rights and freedoms10.Because violations to individualizing values may be considered wrong regardless of where and when they occur, the importance people ascribe to them may be unaffected by who they are with. By contrast, because binding values concern the moral duties conferred by specific social relationships, they may be particularly subject to social influence.