It is commonly argued that humans have a dominant preference for morality traits vs. immorality traits in others—that is, irrespective of the surrounding context, morality fosters liking, and immorality fosters disliking. The results of four experiments oppose this view by showing that situational goals can eliminate and even reverse the preference for morality vs. immorality in others. These findings suggest that our preference for morality vs. immorality is conditional on the demands of our current goals and cannot be attributed solely to innate, “hardwired” links or personal learning experiences. They also suggest that immoral people sometimes win public adoration, and the power that comes with it, not in spite of but precisely because of their immorality.Abstract
The preference for morality in others is regarded as a dominant factor in person perception. Moral traits are thought to foster liking, and immoral traits are thought to foster disliking, irrespective of the context in which they are embedded. We report the results of four studies that oppose this view. Using both explicit and implicit measures, we found that the preference for morality vs. immorality in others is conditional on the evaluator’s current goals. Specifically, when immorality was conducive to participants’ current goals, the preference for moral vs. immoral traits in others was eliminated or reversed. The preferences for mercifulness vs. mercilessness (experiment 1), honesty vs. dishonesty (experiment 2), sexual fidelity vs. infidelity (experiment 3), and altruism vs. selfishness (experiment 4) were all found to be conditional. These findings oppose the consensus view that people have a dominant preference for moral vs. immoral traits in others. Our findings also speak to nativist and empiricist theories of social preferences and the stability of the “social contract” underlying productive human societies.