One of the palpable weaknesses in the American justice system is the tendency for it to produce different outcomes for people from different social classes. Part of this is a result of discrepancies in the quality of legal representation people can afford, but part of it is also due to inconsistencies in the way morally questionable activities are judged.
Research on judgments of misdeeds often focuses on “moral licensing,” or the idea that certain circumstances can make us more amenable to bad behavior. One study that’s received a lot of attention found that people who bought organic food rather than a control food were less likely to volunteer to help a needy stranger. The implication is that doing one good deed made people feel it was less wrong to pass up an opportunity to do another good deed. Other studies have found that this kind of licensing can be influenced by the the actions of people in your group or people with whom you share a random characteristic such as a birthday. One study even found that people grant themselves a license to do bad things by exaggerating the evil of things they previously decided not to do.
However, thus far most research on moral licensing deals with people making judgements about their own actions. We still don’t know much about when or why people are willing to grant third parties a license to do something questionable. Given that you have less knowledge about other people, it seems likely that different factors would be involved.
The University of Wisconsin’s Evan Polman sought to fill this gap by specifically examining whether the social status of a third party influenced the degree to which they were granted a moral license. In two studies Polman and his team told participants about somebody who engaged in questionable activity, but they manipulated status through the person’s name (Billy-Bob (low) vs. Winston Rivington (high) vs. James (control)) or job (janitor vs. CEO). The researchers found that both high- and low-status actors were judged significantly less harshly than actors in the control condition. It would seem that both high- and low-status people tend to be given more leeway to do bad things than people in the middle.
Of course it seems unlikely that high- and low-status people would be granted a moral license for the same reason. That led Polman to investigate a more interesting question, which is how exactly status influences moral licensing. Polman hypothesized that high-status people were given “credentials” while low status people were given “credits.”
While credentials and credits similarly elicit less negative responses to misbehavior, they differ with respect to whether they alter observers’ perception of the negativity of the behavior itself (a form of perceptual change) or merely affect observers’ perception of the extent to which engaging in negative behavior is understandable or justified (a form of attitudinal change). Credentials bias perceptions of norm-violating behavior, leading people to perceive dubious behavior as less dubious; almost as if the behavior was not even a transgression (Effron & Monin, 201o)…
Credits, however, do not change observers’ perception of the behavior but offer counterbalancing capital so that a wrongdoer can transgress as long as their transgressions (so-called moral debits; Miller & Effron, 2010) do not exceed their credits (Nisan, 1991; Zhong, Liljenquist, & Cain, 2009). Thus, credits influence the extent to which observers sanction misbehavior by altering their attitudes toward the wrongdoing, such as viewing the wrongdoing as justified and tolerable.
In other words, when a high-status person does something questionable (e.g. stealing), you judge it less harshly because you believe the action is objectively less wrong (e.g. it was actually a clever manipulation of tax laws.) But when a low-status person does something questionable, you judge it less harshly because you understand why the person did it and you’re sympathetic to their situation (e.g. they needed money for food.)
Polman reasoned that when an action was ambiguous, high status people would be judged less harshly because it would be easier to reinterpret their action as something justifiable. He decided to test this hypothesis by directly manipulating whether the morally questionable action was ambiguous or not. Participants read about a janitor or a CEO who hired only white candidates, but some participants were told the person admitted being reluctant to hire African-Americans (unambiguous condition), and some participants were told the hiring was legitimately based on merit (ambiguous condition). Sure enough, when the action was ambiguous, participants rated the action less harshly when it was done by the CEO rather than the janitor. On the other hand, when the action was unambiguous, and thus it was impossible to view the action as permissible, participants judged the action more harshly when it was done by the CEO and less harshly when it was done by the janitor.
Polman also measured the dispositional sympathy of participants. As predicted, participants who were more sympathetic tended to judge those who were low-status less harshly. However, dispositional sympathy had no effect on the judgments of high-status people. To Polman, this was evidence that low status people were in fact being judged less harshly because their struggles were earning “sympathy credits” rather than “credentials.”
The findings suggest that high- and low-status people are judged differently, but not in a way that is universally advantageous to either of them. When the indecency of an action is ambiguous, high-status people will be judged less harshly because their actions are more likely to be interpreted in a positive light. However, when an action is unambiguous, low-status people will be judged less harshly because they are more likely to elicit sympathy.
As Polman points out, the research has implications for how you ought to defend yourself. If you’re clearly guilty, and thus your transgression is unambiguous, the optimal strategy may be to lower your status in the hope of receiving sympathy. For example, by begging the victim for forgiveness. Alternatively, if there’s ambiguity in your actions, it’s worthwhile to try and raise your status in order to make it more likely your actions will be viewed in a more positive light. Similarly, if you’re a high-status person but the ambiguity of your actions is open to debate, the best defense may be to obfuscate the circumstances of your crime. Because you’re high status, when your behavior is ambiguous a judge is more likely to “credential” your behavior by deciding that your actions weren’t all that bad.
Is there evidence of any of this in the real world? You can certainly string together enough high-status crimes for a solid bout of confirmation bias. For example, when high-status people do something unambiguous, such as commit murder, there doesn’t seem to be any special leniency. On the other hand, when their actions are more ambiguous, such as those involving regulatory improprieties in the banking sector, high-status people do seem to often go unpunished. Of course this doesn’t really prove anything — some actual data is needed. Either way, Polman’s research is a good reminder that social status matters, but not always in the way you might think.
Polman, E., Pettit, N., & Wiesenfeld, B. (2013). Effects of wrongdoer status on moral licensing Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (4), 614-623 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.03.012