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Northeastern University Psychologists Discover Fundamental Bias in Moral Judgment

People Display Hypocrisy Not Only When Extending Leniency to Their Own Sins, But Also to the Sins of Members of Newly Formed Social Circles

(8/8/2007) BOSTON, Mass. – “Do as I say, not as I do.” This old adage refers to the concept of moral hypocrisy, a state of mind in which an individual readily forgives his or her own moral transgressions, yet judges harshly the identical sins of another. And while most people would like to believe their moral decisions are based on objective principles, Northeastern University psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno have discovered the opposite.

In the latest edition of Psychological Science, DeSteno and Valdesolo present a study showing that, not only do people regularly forgive their own transgressions, but – adding an important new dimension – they also extend the same leniency towards members of their social groups. Even more surprising, the study’s authors have found that this “group-based bias” in moral judgment is so deep-seated, it occurs even when the social groups are newly-formed and based on trivial connections.

In their study, DeSteno and Valdesolo required subjects to assign one of two tasks to both themselves and to an anonymous second party. One task was easy and enjoyable, the other difficult and tedious. Subjects could assign these tasks by one of two methods. The first involved using a random procedure guaranteeing fairness. The second allowed subjects to assign tasks as they saw fit; thus trading objectivity for personal preference.

Subjects were either led to believe that the second party was “similar” or “not similar” to them, based on a fictitious and trivial attribute, or they were given no information at all about the second party. DeSteno and Valdesolo then asked some subjects to judge the fairness of their own transgressions, while asking others to judge an equal transgression committed by a second party.

Displaying strong self-interest, approximately 88% of subjects acted unfairly, assigning themselves the easy test without using the random assignment procedure. Demonstrating the prevalence of moral hypocrisy, these subjects judged their own unfair action much more mildly than the identical actions of unknown second party individuals.

Of greater significance, this hypocrisy proved to be sensitive to group affiliation. The hypocritical subjects readily excused the transgressions of second party individuals with whom they shared new and trivial similarity, as noted above. Indeed, they judged the sins of these purported acquaintances as no more unfair than their own.

“These findings speak to the profound sensitivity of even our most valued principles to group concerns,” notes Valdesolo. “The mind is inherently social, and left unchecked, it will bias judgment in the service of ourselves and those like us, affording privileged status to even marginally similar others.”

DeSteno adds, “Somewhat disturbingly, these findings suggest that the distrust and animosity often inherent in intergroup negotiation and interactions stem not only from long-standing conflict, but also from a more fundamental bias of the mind. Recognizing this bias is the first step in working to remediate its potentially damaging influence on intergroup relations.”

To obtain a copy of DeSteno’s and Valdesolo’s study, please contact John Natale at 617-373-2802 or j.natale@neu.edu.

About Northeastern: Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit www.northeastern.edu.