Why Your Moral Code Is Not a Thing

There are a number of ways we shift our beliefs and actions to ensure we see ourselves as morally good people. For example, we like to pretend that we’re victims, and we award ourselves brownie points for the actions of other people in our group. A new study by Lisa Shu and Francesca Gino finds yet another way we distort our actions to maintain our moral self-image. When we do something that breaks rules of morality, we simply forget those rules existed.

In 4 experiments, participants were given the opportunity to behave dishonestly, and thus earn undeserved money, by over-reporting their performance on an ability-based task. Before the task, they were exposed to moral rules (i.e., an honor code). Those who cheated were more likely to forget the moral rules after behaving dishonestly, even though they were equally likely to remember morally irrelevant information (Experiment 1). Furthermore, people showed moral forgetting only after cheating could be enacted but not before cheating (Experiment 2), despite monetary incentives to recall the rules accurately (Experiment 3). Finally, moral forgetting appears to result from decreased access to moral rules after cheating (Experiment 4).

People like to talk about moral codes. It’s the #1 search term on OkCupid. (Ok, I made up that last fact.) Yet despite the vision of a pristine set of rules that seamlessly guide our decisions, there is a growing pile of evidence that moral codes are a messy set of guidelines that constantly shift based on what we’ve done, what other people have done, what we want to do, and what we’re likely to want to do in the future. The world would probably be better off if our brains were conscious of this. If everybody was aware of the wide “margin-of-error” around their moral code, I think certain tensions in the world would go down a fraction of a notch.

The study also highlights a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with regard to our actions and our moral beliefs. Clearly our moral beliefs guide many of our actions. But when we break with those beliefs to do something, our beliefs will shift to better justify the action. In that sense, our actions are the result of our beliefs, but our beliefs are also the result of our actions. Which came first?
Shu, L., & Gino, F. (2012). Sweeping dishonesty under the rug: How unethical actions lead to forgetting of moral rules. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (6), 1164-1177 DOI: 10.1037/a0028381

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