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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

How personality shapes third-party moral judgment

Schwartz, F., Djeriouat, H., & Trémolière, B. 
(2021, March 17).


Although recent research in the moral judgment field has explored third-party judgment, much less is known as to how personality influences these judgments. The present preregistered study addresses this issue by exploring the influence of various personality traits, namely honesty-humility, emotionality, and conscientiousness. Adult participants recruited online (N = 405) read short narratives describing the interaction between two protagonists (“agent” and “victim”). We manipulated the intent of the agent (intent to harm or not) and the outcome for the victim (harmful consequences or no harm). Participants indicated the extent to which they perceived the agent’s behavior as acceptable and blameworthy, and how much punishment they felt the agent deserved, before filling the HEXACO questionnaire. Our results point to a moderate role of honesty-humility, emotionality, and conscientiousness on acceptability of the agent’s behavior, with their relative weight depending upon the type of moral transgression. While higher honesty-humility scores were associated with lower acceptability of moral transgressions overall, higher emotionality was associated with reduced acceptability when the agent attempted to harm, and higher conscientiousness was associated with lower acceptability ratings only when the agent harmed intentionally. We also found a moderate effect of extraversion and emotionality on decisions of punishment and blame of an agent who harmed or attempted to harm. The results suggest that third-party moral judgment is modestly, yet selectively modulated by personality traits and the type of moral transgression.

From the Discussion

However, contrary to our hypothesis, we found that emotionality predicts acceptability of attempted harm, but not accidental harm. Moreover, after adding extraversion to the model in exploratory analyses, emotionality also tended to predict punishment decisions and blame of intentional harm. These results suggest that emotionality may sometimes modulate the intent-based process as much as (or even more so than) the outcome-based process when deciding about moral wrongness. This is consistent with some recent revisions of the dual-process model of moral judgment (Cushman, 2013), which posit that affect may influence both processes. The present findings further converge with the recent observation that distinct emotions may be triggered by the intent to harm on the one hand, and the victim’s harm on the other hand (Hechler & Kessler, 2018). More specifically, anger at an agent who intends to harm is distinct from empathic concern for the victim (Hechler & Kessler, 2018). 

Why did emotionality fail to predict judgment of accidental transgressions in the current study? We see two potential explanations: the contact principle and the action/ omission distinction, which are critical to the judgment of moral transgressions (Cushman, 2013). First, the contact principle of moral judgment suggests that someone who inflicted harm directly (by physical force) is judged more severely than someone who harmed indirectly (Cushman, 2013; Greene et al., 2009). In short, not only the presence of harm induces an emotional response, but also how it has been done (i.e., giving someone poisonous food versus beating someone).The fact that harm is not inflicted directly in all our scenarios may explain why individual differences in emotionality don’t explain the judgment severity of accidental harm. Second, when (accidental) harm results from an action, the transgression is judged more severely than when (accidental) harm results from an omission, an effect known as the “omission bias” (Baron & Ritov, 2004; Spranca et al., 1991). In our study, the victim’s harm resulted mostly from omissions. As a consequence, emotionality may have contributed less to the moral condemnation of harmful omissions than it would have for harmful actions.