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Saturday, July 3, 2021

Binding moral values gain importance in the presence of close others

Yudkin, D.A., Gantman, A.P., Hofmann, W. et al. 
Nat Commun 12, 2718 (2021). 


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 = 1166) 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 = 2016). A lab study (n = 390) and two preregistered online experiments (n = 580 and n = 752) provide 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.

From the Discussion

Our findings converge with work highlighting the practical contexts where binding values are pitted against individualizing ones. Research on the psychology of whistleblowing, for example, suggests that the decision over whether to report unethical behavior in one’s own organization reflects a tradeoff between loyalty (to one’s community) and fairness (to society in general). Other research has found that increasing or decreasing people’s “psychological distance” from a situation affects the degree to which they apply binding versus individualizing principles. For example, research shows that prompting people to take a detached (versus immersed) perspective on their own actions renders them more likely to apply impartial principles in punishing close others for moral transgressions. By contrast, inducing feelings of empathy toward others (which could be construed as increasing feelings of psychological closeness) increases people’s likelihood of showing favoritism toward them in violation of general fairness norms. Our work highlights a psychological process that might help to explain these patterns of behavior: people are more prone to act according to binding values when they are with close others precisely because that relational context activates those values in the mind.