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Wednesday, March 30, 2022

When Good People Break Bad: Moral Impression Violations in Everyday Life

Guan, K. W., & Heine, S. J. (2022).
Social Psychological and Personality Science. 


The present research investigated the emotional, interpersonal, and impression-updating consequences of witnessing events that violate the moral character impressions people hold of others. Across three studies, moral character-violations predicted broad disruptions to participants’ sense of meaning, confidence judging moral character, and expectations of others’ moral characters. Participants who were in real life closer to perpetrators, directly victimized, and higher in preferences for closure and behavioral stability reported more negative outcomes. Moreover, experimental manipulations showed that character-violations lead to worse outcomes than the comparable experience of encountering consistently immoral others. The authors discuss implications for research on moral perception and meaning, as well as on understanding responses to everyday revelations about people’s characters.

From the General Discussion

Moral character-violations appear frequently in the media and occasionally in everyday life. The present research provides an explanation of how these experiences affect perceivers, grounded in the meaning maintenance model (Heine et al., 2006) and social perception literature (Goodwin et al., 2014). Across all three studies, good-to-bad character-violations were associated with disruptions in perceivers’ sense that they understand the world, their confidence judging character, and their impressions of people’s morality in general. In other words, the psychological impact is not restricted to people’s views of specific character-violated targets, but spills over to color how people view other people more generally. Studies 1 and 2 also illuminated the types of moral character-violations people tend to encounter in everyday life, exploring additional situational and dispositional factors that predict stronger feelings of loss of meaning. Study 3 found causal evidence for these effects.

Our findings speak to general experiences, but a few key variables powerfully predict recalled outcomes. Directly victimized targets, and those with higher preferences for closure and personality stability reported greater disruptions in meaning. These findings line up with past evidence that being directly betrayed or transgressed upon leads to strong negative emotions (Adams & Inesi, 2016; Hutcherson & Gross, 2011), and having higher dispositional needs for stability and closure predicts more negative reactions to meaning-violations (e.g., Doherty, 1998).