Your Moral Compass Can Be Easily Hacked

Our moral decisions are often influenced by those around us. Sometimes we look to others to see what norms are appropriate, and sometimes we are reminded how to act through the priming of various role models (e.g. “Parents are supposed to be supportive”). There is also a third way others can affect our moral compass, and it’s much more distressing and arbitrary.

In a series of experiments Francesca Gino and Adam Galinsky found that feeling “psychological closeness” to somebody who acts unethically makes you more likely to act unethically (the same is true of ethical behavior.) On the surface that doesn’t seem like a serious issue, but psychological connections can arise from some fairly random things.

Even when psychological closeness was subtle and born out of shared birth month and year, it influenced participants’ behavior and their tendency to cross ethical boundaries. Furthermore, psychological closeness created a distance from one’s own moral compass: psychological closeness led to higher levels of moral disengagement about cheating.

These connections can arise between people who are randomly assigned to the same group or who share the same name. The researchers also note that psychological closeness can result from “perspective taking.” I’ve previously discussed how perspective taking can improve the chance of compromise, but the fact that it can also make people marginally more compatible on difficult moral issues gives it even more instrumentality. Although it would be nice to say that perspective taking could help end some of the intransigence in our political system, you can’t actually force people to consider a certain perspective. Even if you tied James Inhofe to a chair a la A Clockwork Orange and forced him to watch An Inconvenient Truth, it’s doubtful he would allow himself to gain any sense of Al Gore’s perspective.

Gino, F., & Galinsky, A. (2012). Vicarious dishonesty: When psychological closeness creates distance from one’s moral compass Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.03.011


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s