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Thursday, May 6, 2021

A chip off the (im)moral block? Lay beliefs about genetic heritability predicts whether family members’ actions affect self-judgments

Peetz, J., Wohl, M. J. A., Wilson, A. E., 
& Dawson, A. 
(2021, March 18).


The idea of heritability may have consequences for individuals’ sense of self by connecting identity to the actions of others who happen to share genetic ties. Across seven experimental studies (total N=2,628), recalling morally bad or good actions by family members influenced individuals’ moral self among those who endorse a lay belief that moral character is genetically heritable, but not among those who did not endorse this belief (Study 1-5). In contrast, recalling actions by unrelated individuals had no effect, regardless of lay beliefs (Study 2, 5), the endorsement of other relevant lay beliefs did not moderate the effect of parent’s actions on self-judgments (Study 3). Individuals who endorsed heritability beliefs also chose less helpful responses to hypothetical helping scenarios if they had recalled unhelpful (vs. helpful) acts by a genetically-related family member (Study 5). Taken together, these studies suggest that lay beliefs in the role of genetics are important for self-perceptions.

General Discussion 

In the present research, we examined whether a person’s convictions about their own moral character might be shaped, in part, by the actions of others. Across seven studies, we found evidence that past actions by genetically related family members, and specifically parents, can influence an individual’s sense of moral self –but only if that individual believes that the critical aspect of the self (in our studies, moral character) is genetically inherited (Study 1-5). Past actions by genetically unrelated individuals such as friends or strangers (Study 2), and unrelated family members (Study 5) did not affect participants’ moral self-judgment in the same way, and other lay beliefs(i.e., socialization and the malleability of morality) did not moderate the influence of parents’ actions in the same way (Study 3).

Theoretical Contributions

Self and Identity

This research helps disentangle some of the questions about whether and when other people’s action may influence individuals’ self-concept.  Although the existing literature has demonstrated that the actions of others can indeed have an impact on the self (e.g., people may feel threatened, embarrassed, proud or guilty when reminded of the actions of others and may sometimes believe they will be judged on the basis of others’ actions), past work has not focused on how actions of others might affect self-concept. Further, prior research in this vein has not typically systematically considered whether the effects of others’ actions on the self is the result of that relation being chosen (i.e., friendship), being due to group membership, or being due to genetics(i.e., family). We extend past knowledge in this field by examining whether people’s beliefs about genetic heritability can determine the degree to which family members’ actions predict one’s own self-judgments.