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Are our moral judgements egocentric?

Posted August 13, 2014
Picture: The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds. Author: Georges de La Tour. Year: 1635. Source:

Picture: The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds. Author: Georges de La Tour. Year: 1635. Source:

„Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike,“ Oscar Wilde once said. New study carried out by Polish psychologists supports the view that ethical evaluations are strongly influenced by self-interest. „The self-interest bias shows that moral judgment can be a matter of liking (or disliking) rather than merely following principles,“ Konrad Bocian and Bogdan Wojciszke say.

Numerous scientific studies show that our ethical decisions and opinions are automatic. Ethical intuitions are frequently based on affective reactions rather than on rational deliberation. Researchers claim that „individuals automatically develop egocentric perceptions and evaluations (intuitively presuming that „what is good or bad for me is generally good or bad“), and because moral judgments of what is fair or unfair are inherently affective, judgments are generally based on those egocentric evaluations.“ They think that such psychological mechanisms should cause so called egocentric bias.

In fact, previous research revealed that people are influenced by such prejudices when they evaluate their own actions or compare them to actions of others. However, almost no one tried to conduct direct tests showing that these preferences affect the assessment of others behavior. „The hypothesis that self-interest biases the moral judgments of others’ actual behaviors remains untested despite its familiarity,“ scholars write.

Bocian and Wojciszke at the Sopot University runned set of experiments in order to fix this shortcoming. For instance, scientists observed how people react to a librarian who breaks the rules. „The first group consisted of students who returned overdue books, and the librarian broke the rules and waived their fine. The second group consisted of students with overdue books but the fine was not waived,“ psychologists explain.

In addition to this natural field experiment several laboratory studies were conducted. Participants in one of the experiments observed cheating player. Victory of the cheater was beneficial for some of the observers. Meanwhile, other respondents were not affected by the outcome of the game. Results of these experiments significantly supported hypothesis that our ethical intuitions are egocentric.

„All three studies observed that the observers who gained from an actor’s behavior developed a positive attitude toward the actor, and these increases in liking completely mediated increases in moral judgments,“ researchers report.

Article: Bocian K., and Wojciszke B., 2014, Self-Interest Bias in Moral Judgments of Others’ Actions, Personality and Social Psycholy Bulletin, 40: 898, source link.

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