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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Virtue Discounting: Observers Infer that Publicly Virtuous Actors Have Less Principled Motivations

Kraft-Todd, G., Kleiman-Weiner, M., 
& Young, L. (2022, May 27). 


Behaving virtuously in public presents a paradox: only by doing so can people demonstrate their virtue and also influence others through their example, yet observers may derogate actors’ behavior as mere “virtue signaling.” We introduce the term virtue discounting to refer broadly to the reasons that people devalue actors’ virtue, bringing together empirical findings across diverse literatures as well as theories explaining virtuous behavior. We investigate the observability of actors’ behavior as one reason for virtue discounting, and its mechanism via motivational inferences using the comparison of generosity and impartiality as a case study among virtues. Across 14 studies (7 preregistered, total N=9,360), we show that publicly virtuous actors are perceived as less morally good than privately virtuous actors, and that this effect is stronger for generosity compared to impartiality (i.e. differential virtue discounting). An exploratory factor analysis suggests that three types of motives—principled, reputation-signaling, and norm-signaling—affect virtue discounting. Using structural equation modeling, we show that the effect of observability on ratings of actors’ moral goodness is largely explained by inferences that actors have less principled motivations. Further, we provide experimental evidence that observers’ motivational inferences mechanistically contribute to virtue discounting. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of our findings, as well as future directions for research on the social perception of virtue.

General Discussion

Across three analyses martialing data from 14 experiments (seven preregistered, total N=9,360), we provide robust evidence of virtue discounting. In brief, we show that the observability of actors’ behavior is a reason that people devalue actors’ virtue, and that this effect can be explained by observers’ inferences about actors’ motivations. In Analysis 1—which includes a meta-analysis of all experiments we ran—we show that observability causes virtue discounting, and that this effect is larger in the context of generosity compared to impartiality. In Analysis 2, we provide suggestive evidence that participants’ motivational inferences mediate a large portion (72.6%) of the effect of observability on their ratings of actors’ moral goodness. In Analysis 3, we experimentally show that when we stipulate actors’ motivation, observability loses its significant effect on participants’ judgments of actors’ moral goodness.  This gives further evidence for   the hypothesis that observers’ inferences about actors’ motivations are a mechanism for the way that the observability of actions impacts virtue discounting.We now consider the contributions of our findings to the empirical literature, how these findings interact with our theoretical account, and the limitations of the present investigation (discussing promising directions for future research throughout). Finally, we conclude with practical implications for effective prosocial advocacy.