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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Permitting immoral behaviour: A generalized compensation belief hypothesis

Wang, X., Chen, Z., et al. (2022). 
British Journal of Psychology.


When are we more likely to permit immoral behaviours? The current research examined a generalized compensation belief hypothesis that individuals, as observers, would morally tolerate and accept someone paying forward unfair treatment to an innocent person as a means to compensate for the perpetrator's previously experienced mistreatment. Across five experiments (N = 1107) based on economic games (Studies 1–4) and diverse real-life scenarios (Study 5), we showed that participants, as observing third parties, were more likely to morally permit and engage in the same negative act once they knew about previous maltreatment of the perpetrator. This belief occurred even when the content of received and paid-forward maltreatment was non-identical (Study 2), when the negative treatment was received from a non-human target (Study 3) and when the maltreatment was intangible (e.g. material loss) or relational (e.g. social exclusion; Study 5). Perceived required compensation mediated the effect of previous maltreatment on moral permission (Studies 4 and 5). The results consistently suggest that people's moral permission of immoral behaviours is influenced by perpetrator's previous mistreatment, contributing to a better understanding of the nature and nuances of our sense of fairness and contextualized moral judgement.

From the General Discussion

The existence of a generalized compensation belief is in line with the theories of person-specific equity and equity with the world, which state that individuals attempt to maintain net equity (i.e. a balance between loss and gain) both within and across relationships (Austin & Walster, 1974; Homans, 1961).  Whereas traditional person-specific equity and equity with the world theories are mainly concerned about how I (i.e. the first-person perspective) actually form balanced relations with others (out of potential motives, e.g. self-interest and negative affect), generalized compensation belief examines individuals' perception of how general social interactions involving mistreatments should be, and it shows that individuals have a fundamental moral belief in balancing social interactions and permit paying-forward moral mistreatment, even when their self-interest remains relatively irrelevant.

At first sight, the generalized compensation belief may be inconsistent with the predictions of some theories. For example, the theory of morality-as-cooperation argues that solutions to problems of cooperation constitute human morality (Curry et al., 2019a, 2019b), thus whether an act is considered morally acceptable or not should depend on whether it promotes cooperation. Generalized compensation belief permits paying forward a harmful act and does not promote immediate interpersonal cooperation (if not promote the opposite). However, it is worth pointing out that the theory of morality-as-cooperation makes no specific predictions about how we make a moral judgement in particular proximate contexts.  The generalized compensation belief could still be compatible with the ultimate function of ensuring generalized reciprocity and promoting cooperation in the end, a possibility worth examining using evolutionary psychology approaches.