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Friday, June 2, 2023

Is it good to feel bad about littering? Conflict between moral beliefs and behaviors for everyday transgressions

Schwartz, Stephanie A. and Inbar, Yoel
Originally posted 22 June 22


People sometimes do things that they think are morally wrong. We investigate how actor’s perceptions of the morality of their own behaviors affects observers’ evaluations. In Study 1 (n = 302), we presented participants with six different descriptions of actors who routinely engaged in a morally questionable behavior and varied whether the actors thought the behavior was morally wrong. Actors who believed their behavior was wrong were seen as having better moral character, but their behavior was rated as more wrong. In Study 2 (n = 391) we investigated whether perceptions of actor metadesires were responsible for the effects of actor beliefs on judgments. We used the same stimuli and measures as in Study 1 but added a measure of the actor’s perceived desires to engage in the behaviors. As predicted, the effect of actors’ moral beliefs on judgments of their behavior and moral character was mediated by perceived metadesires.

General Discussion

In two studies, we find that actors’ beliefs about their own everyday immoral behaviors affect both how the acts and the actors are evaluated—albeit in opposite directions. An actor’s belief that his or her act is morally wrong causes observers to see the act itself as less morally acceptable, while, at the same time, it leads to more positive character judgments of the actor. In Study 2, we find that these differences in character judgments are mediated by people’s perceptions of the actor’s metadesires. Actors who see their behavior as morally wrong are presumed to have a desire not to engage in it, and this in turn leads to more positive evaluations of their character. These results suggest that one benefit of believing one’s own behavior to be immoral is that others—if they know this—will evaluate one’s character more positively.


Honest Hypocrites 

In research on moral judgments of hypocrites, Jordan et al. (2017) found that people who publicly espouse a moral standard that they privately violate are judged particularly negatively.  However, they also found that “honest hypocrites” (those who publicly condemn a behavior while admitting they engage in it themselves) are judged more positively than traditional hypocrites and equivalently to control transgressors (people who simply engage in the negative behavior without taking a public stand on its acceptability). This might seem to contradict our findings in the current studies, where people who transgressed despite thinking that the behavior was morally wrong were judged more positively than those who simply transgressed. We believe the key distinction that explains the difference between Jordan et al.’s results and ours is that in their paradigm, hypocrites publicly condemned others for engaging in the behavior in question.  As Jordan et al. show, public condemnation is interpreted as a strong signal that someone is unlikely to engage in that behavior themselves; hypocrites therefore are disliked both for
engaging in a negative behavior and for falsely signaling (by their public condemnation) that they wouldn’t. Honest hypocrites, who explicitly state that they engage in the negative behavior, are not falsely signaling. However, Jordan et al.’s scenarios imply to participants that honest hypocrites do condemn others—something that may strike people as unfair coming from a person who engages in the behavior themselves. Thus, honest hypocrites may be penalized for public condemnation, even as they are credited for more positive metadesires. In contrast, in our studies participants were told that the scenario protagonists thought the behavior was morally wrong but not that they publicly condemned anyone else for engaging in it. This may have allowed protagonists to benefit from more positive perceived metadesires without being penalized for public condemnation. This explanation is admittedly speculative but could be tested in future research that we outline below.

Suppose you do something bad. Will people blame you more if you knew it was wrong? Or will they blame you less?

The answer seems to be: They will think your act is more wrong, but your character is less bad.