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Monday, June 21, 2021

How relationships bias moral reasoning: Neural and self-report evidence

Berg, M. K., Kitayama, S., & Kross, E.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 95, July 2021, 104156


Laws govern society, regulating people's behavior to create social harmony. Yet recent research indicates that when laws are broken by people we know and love, we consistently fail to report their crimes. Here we identify an expectancy-based cognitive mechanism that underlies this phenomenon and illustrate how it interacts with people's motivations to predict their intentions to report crimes. Using a combination of self-report and brain (ERP) measures, we demonstrate that although witnessing any crime violates people's expectations, expectancy violations are stronger when close (vs. distant) others commit crimes. We further employ an experimental-causal-chain design to show that people resolve their expectancy violations in diametrically opposed ways depending on their relationship to the transgressor. When close others commit crimes, people focus more on the individual (vs. the crime), which leads them to protect the transgressor. However, the reverse is true for distant others, which leads them to punish the transgressor. These findings highlight the sensitivity of early attentional processes to information about close relationships. They further demonstrate how these processes interact with motivation to shape moral decisions. Together, they help explain why people stubbornly protect close others, even in the face of severe crimes.


• We used neural and self-report methods to explain people's reluctance to punish close others who act immorally.

• Close others acting immorally, and severe immoral acts, are highly unexpected.

• Expectancy violations interact with motivation to drive attention.

• For close others, people focus on the transgressor, which yields a more lenient response.

• For distant others, people focus on the immoral act, which yields a more punitive response.