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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Immoral actors’ meta-perceptions are accurate but overly positive

Lees, J. M., Young, L., & Waytz, A.
(2021, August 16).


We examine how actors think others perceive their immoral behavior (moral meta-perception) across a diverse set of real-world moral violations. Utilizing a novel methodology, we solicit written instances of actors’ immoral behavior (N_total=135), measure motives and meta-perceptions, then provide these accounts to separate samples of third-party observers (N_total=933), using US convenience and representative samples (N_actor-observer pairs=4,615). We find that immoral actors can accurately predict how they are perceived, how they are uniquely perceived relative to the average immoral actor, and how they are misperceived. Actors who are better at judging the motives of other immoral actors also have more accurate meta-perceptions. Yet accuracy is accompanied by two distinct biases: overestimating the positive perceptions others’ hold, and believing one’s motives are more clearly perceived than they are. These results contribute to a detailed account of the multiple components underlying both accuracy and bias in moral meta-perception.

From the General Discussion

These results collectively suggest that individuals who have engaged in immoral behavior can accurately forecast how others will react to their moral violations.  

Studies 1-4 also found similar evidence for accuracy in observers’ judgments of the unique motives of immoral actors, suggesting that individuals are able to successfully perspective-take with those who have committed moral violations. Observers higher in cognitive ability (Studies 2-3) and empathic concern (Studies 2-4) were consistently more accurate in these judgments, while observers higher in Machiavellianism (Studies 2-4) and the propensity to engage in unethical workplace behaviors (Studies 3-4) were consistently less accurate. This latter result suggests that more frequently engaging in immoral behavior does not grant one insight into the moral minds of others, and in fact is associated with less ability to understand the motives behind others’ immoral behavior.

Despite strong evidence for meta-accuracy (and observer accuracy) across studies, actors’ accuracy in judging how they would be perceived was accompanied by two judgment biases.  Studies 1-4 found evidence for a transparency bias among immoral actors (Gilovich et al., 1998), meaning that actors overestimated how accurately observers would perceive their self-reported moral motives. Similarly, in Study 4 an examination of actors’ meta-perception point estimates found evidence for a positivity bias. Actors systematically overestimate the positive attributions, and underestimate the negative attributions, made of them and their motives. In fact, the single meta-perception found to be the most inaccurate in its average point estimate was the meta-perception of harm caused, which was significantly underestimated.