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Sunday, April 2, 2023

Being good to look good: Self-reported moral character predicts moral double standards among reputation-seeking individuals

Mengchen, D. Kupfer, T. R, et al. (2022).
British Journal of Psychology
First published 4 NOV 22


Moral character is widely expected to lead to moral judgements and practices. However, such expectations are often breached, especially when moral character is measured by self-report. We propose that because self-reported moral character partly reflects a desire to appear good, people who self-report a strong moral character will show moral harshness towards others and downplay their own transgressions—that is, they will show greater moral hypocrisy. This self-other discrepancy in moral judgements should be pronounced among individuals who are particularly motivated by reputation. Employing diverse methods including large-scale multination panel data (N = 34,323), and vignette and behavioural experiments (N = 700), four studies supported our proposition, showing that various indicators of moral character (Benevolence and Universalism values, justice sensitivity, and moral identity) predicted harsher judgements of others' more than own transgressions. Moreover, these double standards emerged particularly among individuals possessing strong reputation management motives. The findings highlight how reputational concerns moderate the link between moral character and moral judgement.

Practitioner points
  • Self-reported moral character does not predict actual moral performance well.
  • Good moral character based on self-report can sometimes predict strong moral hypocrisy.
  • Good moral character based on self-report indicates high moral standards, while only for others but not necessarily for the self.
  • Hypocrites can be good at detecting reputational cues and presenting themselves as morally decent persons.
From the General Discussion

A well-known Golden Rule of morality is to treat others as you wish to be treated yourself (Singer, 1963). People with a strong moral character might be expected to follow this Golden Rule, and judge others no more harshly than they judge themselves. However, when moral character is measured by self-reports, it is often intertwined with socially desirable responding and reputation management motives (Anglim et al., 2017; Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016; Reed & Aquino, 2003). The current research examines the potential downstream effects of moral character and reputation management motives on moral decisions. By attempting to differentiate the ‘genuine’ and ‘reputation managing’ components of self-reported moral character, we posited an association between moral character and moral double standards on the self and others. Imposing harsh moral standards on oneself often comes with a cost to self-interest; to signal one's moral character, criticizing others' transgressions can be a relatively cost-effective approach (Jordan et al., 2017; Kupfer & Giner-Sorolla, 2017; Simpson et al., 2013). To the extent that the demonstration of a strong moral character is driven by reputation management motives, we, therefore, predicted that it would be related to increased hypocrisy, that is, harsher judgements of others' transgressions but not stricter standards for own misdeeds.


How moral character guides moral judgements and behaviours depends on reputation management motives. When people are motivated to attain a good reputation, their self-reported moral character may predict more hypocrisy by displaying stronger moral harshness towards others than towards themselves. Thus, claiming oneself as a moral person does not always translate into doing good deeds, but can manifest as showcasing one's morality to others. Desires for a positive reputation might help illuminate why self-reported moral character often fails to capture real-life moral decisions, and why (some) people who appear to be moral are susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy—for applying higher moral standards to others than to themselves.