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Friday, June 14, 2024

What does my group consider moral?: How social influence shapes moral expressions

del Rosario, K., Van Bavel, J. J., & West, T.
PsyArXiv (2024, May 8).


Although morality is often characterized as a set of stable values that are deeply held, we argue that moral expressions are highly malleable and sensitive to social norms. For instance, norms can either lead people to exaggerate their expressions of morality (such as on social media) or restrain them (such as in professional settings). In this paper, we discuss why moral expressions are subject to social influence by considering two goals that govern social influence: affiliation goals (the desire to affiliate with one’s group) and accuracy goals (the desire to be accurate in ambiguous situations). Different from other domains of social influence, we argue that moral expressions often satisfy both affiliation goals (“I want to fit in with the group”) and accuracy goals (“I want to do the right thing”). As such, the fundamental question governing moral expressions is: “what does my group consider moral?” We argue that this central consideration achieves both goals underlying social influence and drives moral expressions. We outline the ways in which social influence shapes moral expressions, from unconsciously copying others’ behavior to expressing outrage to gain status within the group. Finally, we describe when the same goals can result in different behaviors, highlighting how context-specific norms can encourage (or discourage) moral expressions. We explain how this framework will be helpful in understanding how identity, norms, and social contexts shape moral expressions.


Our review examines moral expressions through the lens of social influence, illustrating the critical role of the social environment in shaping moral expressions. Moral expressions serve a social purpose, such as affiliating with a group, and are influenced by various goals, including understanding the appropriate emotional response to moral issues and conforming to others' expressions to fit in. These influences become evident in different contexts, where norms either encourage exaggerated expressions, like on social media, or restraint, such as in professional settings. For this reason, different forms of influence can have vastly different implications. As such, the fundamental social question governing moral expressions for people in moral contexts is: “What does my group consider moral?” However, much of the morality literature does not account for the role of social influence in moral expressions. Thus, a social norms framework will be helpful in understanding how social contexts shape moral expression.

Here is a summary:

The research argues that moral expressions (outward displays of emotions related to right and wrong) are highly malleable and shaped by social norms and contexts, contrary to the view that morality reflects stable convictions. It draws from research on normative influence (conforming to gain social affiliation) and informational influence (seeking accuracy in ambiguous situations) to explain how moral expressions aim to satisfy both affiliation goals ("fitting in with the group") and accuracy goals ("doing the right thing").

The key points are:
  1. Moral expressions vary across contexts because people look to their social groups to determine what is considered moral behavior.
  2. Affiliation goals (fitting in) and accuracy goals (being correct) are intertwined for moral expressions, unlike in other domains where they are distinct.
  3. Social influence shapes moral expressions in various ways, from unconscious mimicry to outrage expressions for gaining group status.
  4. Context-specific norms can encourage or discourage moral expressions by prioritizing affiliation over accuracy goals, or vice versa.
  5. The motivation to be seen as moral contributes to the malleability of moral expressions across social contexts.