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Saturday, November 4, 2023

One strike and you’re a lout: Cherished values increase the stringency of moral character attributions

Rottman, J., Foster-Hanson, E., & Bellersen, S.
(2023). Cognition, 239, 105570.


Moral dilemmas are inescapable in daily life, and people must often choose between two desirable character traits, like being a diligent employee or being a devoted parent. These moral dilemmas arise because people hold competing moral values that sometimes conflict. Furthermore, people differ in which values they prioritize, so we do not always approve of how others resolve moral dilemmas. How are we to think of people who sacrifice one of our most cherished moral values for a value that we consider less important? The “Good True Self Hypothesis” predicts that we will reliably project our most strongly held moral values onto others, even after these people lapse. In other words, people who highly value generosity should consistently expect others to be generous, even after they act frugally in a particular instance. However, reasoning from an error-management perspective instead suggests the “Moral Stringency Hypothesis,” which predicts that we should be especially prone to discredit the moral character of people who deviate from our most deeply cherished moral ideals, given the potential costs of affiliating with people who do not reliably adhere to our core moral values. In other words, people who most highly value generosity should be quickest to stop considering others to be generous if they act frugally in a particular instance. Across two studies conducted on Prolific (N = 966), we found consistent evidence that people weight moral lapses more heavily when rating others’ membership in highly cherished moral categories, supporting the Moral Stringency Hypothesis. In Study 2, we examined a possible mechanism underlying this phenomenon. Although perceptions of hypocrisy played a role in moral updating, personal moral values and subsequent judgments of a person’s potential as a good cooperative partner provided the clearest explanation for changes in moral character attributions. Overall, the robust tendency toward moral stringency carries significant practical and theoretical implications.

My take aways: 

The results showed that participants were more likely to rate the person as having poor moral character when the transgression violated a cherished value. This suggests that when we see someone violate a value that we hold dear, it can lead us to question their entire moral compass.

The authors argue that this finding has important implications for how we think about moral judgment. They suggest that our own values play a significant role in how we judge others' moral character. This is something to keep in mind the next time we're tempted to judge someone harshly.

Here are some additional points that are made in the article:
  • The effect of cherished values on moral judgment is stronger for people who are more strongly identified with their values.
  • The effect is also stronger for transgressions that are seen as more serious.
  • The effect is not limited to personal values. It can also occur for group-based values, such as patriotism or religious beliefs.