Why Your Morals May Be More Flexible Than You Think


Disapproval of qualities people often associate with immorality such as selfishness, dishonesty, sexual infidelity, and mercilessness is conditional, rather than universal, according to a new study.

In a 1968 study of 555 personal traits, people ranked liars and phonies as the most detestable individuals, even lower than those who are murderous, malicious, and cruel.

“We wanted to know if this always holds true, or whether there are contexts when people see phoniness as a good thing,” says psychologist David E. Melnikoff of Yale University.

Melnikoff and coauthor April H. Bailey found one such context: Subjects asked to hire a spy viewed an untrustworthy one more positively than a trustworthy spy, despite regarding the untrustworthy spy as more immoral.

The survey results held true for other traits associated with immorality. People in general agreed that sexual infidelity is more immoral than sexual fidelity, but uncommitted men did not evaluate sexual infidelity more negatively.

Almost everybody agreed that being merciless is more immoral than being merciful, but people evaluated a merciless juror more positively than a merciful juror. The researchers found that people’s preference for altruism over selfishness is conditional as well.

“We all know of some immoral people who are well liked, but we tend to assume that these people are not considered immoral by their admirers—or if they are, that they possess other compensating qualities,” Bailey says.

However, the findings suggest that, in certain contexts, people are liked precisely because they are considered immoral, the authors say.

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The researchers report their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Yale University

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