According to new research by Berkeley-Haas Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher, people evaluate others’ moral character-being honest, principled, and by their deeds virtuous-not, but also by the framework that decides how such decisions are created. Furthermore, the research discovered that what differentiates the characteristics of moral character (from positive yet nonmoral attributes) is that such qualities are non-negotiable in social relationships. Critcher, who studies cultural mindset in the Haas Marketing Group, writes about his findings in a recent book chapter, “What Do We Evaluate WHENEVER WE Evaluate Moral Character?” co-authored with Erik Helzer of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. The chapter will soon be published in the Atlas of Moral Psychology, from Guilford Press.

But just how do people detect whether good moral character is present? The results suggest that individuals can do what is considered the incorrect thing but really be judged more moral for the decision. Imagine a social media company with usage of its clients’ private information and interactions. The federal government desires usage of an individual data source for terrorist monitoring purposes, but it is up to the CEO to choose whether to violate the company’s privacy code.

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Is he considered a more moral person by complying with the demand, or by refusing it? Critcher’s work demonstrates, even people who think the CEO should give the info to the government consider the CEO to have better moral character if he does the contrary and adheres to the privacy policy. But do people see these qualities as essential because these were seen to be moral? The study team clarified that question by leading people to construe the very same trait as either moral or nonmoral. Research participants were shown 13 characteristics that the analysts considered ambiguously moral (e.g., fair).

Some participants were first subjected to traits that were clearly non-moral (e.g., imaginative); afterward, they found the ambiguous traits relevant morally. On the other hand, other participants who first saw traits which were obviously moral (e.g., honorable) deemed the ambiguous qualities as non-moral. Inducing visitors to see these 13 ambiguous qualities as more moral also triggered them to consider these characteristics as more needed for their social associations.

In short, individuals considered good moral character to be synonymous with justifying a cultural investment. But here’s the conundrum: If people don’t want to invest in others who lack moral character, how do they ever learn whether new potential romantic relationship companions have that essential character? Perhaps people escape this problem by assuming the best about a person’s moral character until they learn otherwise. To that final end, a third test exposed how optimism about an individual’s moral personality helps people avoid this conundrum.

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