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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Marco Brambilla

26.03.2018, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy; Project: If You Act Like a Saint, I Feel Like a Sinner: Effects of Supererogatory Behavior on Moral Self-Perception

The EASP Seedcorn grant offered me the possibility to investigate the effects of supererogatory behavior on person perception. The research was done in collaboration with Simona Sacchi, University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy.

Traditional moral philosophy (Urmson, 1958) differentiates among different types of moral actions: obligatory actions (i.e., actions that are good to do and bad not to do) and supererogatory actions (i.e., actions that are praiseworthy but non-obligatory). Whereas the former corresponds to “ordinary” morality, the latter is a matter of personal initiative and is not based on normative demands. Thus, supererogatory actions are not expected of everybody. Examples include heroism, martyrdom, or holiness. With a few exceptions, represented by the works by Zimbardo and colleagues on heroism and altruism (Franco, Blau, & Zimbardo, 2011; Franco & Zimbardo, 2006; Zimbardo, 2006, 2007), the interest in supererogatory actions has always been more of philosophy than of moral psychology. Moreover, supererogation has so far been simply treated by psychology as an extreme case along the continuum of moral actions. By contrast, we propose that supererogatory actions are qualitatively different from other moral actions and that actors performing supererogatory actions are not simply perceived as extraordinarily positive.

Prior research claims that when we see a person performing acts of charity, gratitude, or any strong display of virtue, we could experience elevation. Moral elevation is a sort of emulation or the desire to also perform a virtuous act (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Aquino, McFerran, & Laven, 2011; Schnall & Roper, 2012), a positive emotion, or a desire to affiliate with those who are morally admirable (Haidt, 2000; 2003). However, a second line of research suggests an asymptotic pattern in the evaluation of pro-sociality (Cramwinckel et al., 2013; Gneezy & Epley, 2014; Klein & Epley, 2014) so that extremely positive actions are not evaluated better than good actions. Thus, for instance, exceeding a promise does not lead to a more positive effect than keeping it. Moreover, in stark contrast with the moral elevation prediction, a third line of studies claims that overtly moral behavior can even elicit annoyance and ridicule rather than admiration and respect (Minson & Monin, 2012). In fact, a sense of threat to our moral identity could arise when we are dealing with a person who seems to behave more morally than us (Monin, 2007). Therefore, upward moral comparison can lead to three types of experiences that are aversive to individuals: Moral inferiority (i.e., people can feel less moral relative to others whom they see as more moral than themselves), moral confusion (i.e., people can come to question whether their own behavior is morally appropriate), and anticipated moral reproach (i.e., people suspect that moral others are passing judgment on their own morality). As a consequence, moral agents may be derogated by trivializing their moral behavior or by discrediting their moral virtue (Minson & Monin, 2012; Cramwinckel et al., 2013).

In line with these studies on do-gooder derogation, we argued that the hyper-moral (vs. moral) behavior could have detrimental effects on the social perceiver’s self-perception. Specifically, we hypothesized that an agent’s hyper-moral behavior could elicit a sense of moral inadequacy and negative emotions in the perceiver. Perceiving the hyper-moral agent as a threat to the individual’s moral status could, in turn, lead to avoidance of the target rather than emulation and admiration.

To test our hypotheses, we ran a series of studies. A first set of pretests identified the moral and hyper-moral behaviors. These studies helped us to develop the materials for the main studies. In Study 1, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about social perception. Specifically, participants were asked to think about their past experiences and to indicate how much they consider themselves to be moral individuals. Next, participants were presented with three scenarios describing “obligatory moral” or “hyper-moral” actions. Based on the findings that emerged in the pretests, we developed three obligatory moral scenarios that describe behaviors of correctness, honesty, and sincerity that are morally obligatory. The three hyper-moral scenarios, instead, describe behaviors of social heroism, heroic action, and extreme altruism, in which the agent is not morally obliged to act in that sense. The type of behavior (obligatory moral vs. hyper-moral) varied between participants. Examples of the scenarios used in the study include the following:

  • Honesty (obligatory moral behavior) – There is a group of friends on the beach. Pietro Cacciani, a member of the group, finds 10.000 Euros and gives it back to the owner.
  • Heroic action (hyper-moral behavior) – There is a group of friends on the beach. Pietro Cacciani, a member of the group, dives and risks his own life to save a girl from the rough water.

Participants were asked to answer six questions about a possible sense of inadequacy toward the protagonist of the scenario. Results show that participants experienced a greater sense of inadequacy when compared with a hyper-moral agent than with a moral agent. In Study 2, we aimed to replicate and extend the results of Study 1. In Study 1, we compared obligatory moral and hyper-moral scenarios that were very different from each other. In particular, all the hyper-moral scenarios described behaviors that were rare and particularly impressive. Because of the singularity of these situations, in which the agent’s life was at risk as he performed, for example, heroic rescues or actions of social heroism, it is possible that the participants evaluated the exceptional nature of these actions rather than the arbitrariness of the behavior that was independent of the level of risk for the agent.

For these reasons, and to avoid any possible confounds, in Study 2 we asked participants to imagine a possible world (Twin Earth) in which a specific class of actions were mandatory or arbitrary. Hence, it was possible to manipulate the frame to interpret a specific action as a moral virtue rather than a moral duty without changing the content of the act. Furthermore, unlike Study 1, we introduced a hyper-moral behavior (i.e., blood donation), which was not extreme, risky, or impressive, even if it goes beyond the call of duty. Participants were presented with one of two scenarios that were either a moral or hyper-moral scenario. For the scenarios, we chose an action that is actually mandatory in the real word (i.e., money restitution) and an example of a behavior (i.e., blood donation) that is hyper-moral in the real world. Both scenarios were framed in terms of obligatoriness (obligatory moral) or arbitrariness (hyper-moral). Thus, the action was exactly the same in the two experimental conditions, whereas its frame (duty vs. option) was changed.

After reading the scenario, participants were asked to answer six questions about a possible sense of inadequacy toward the protagonist of the scenario. Results show that participants experienced a greater sense of inadequacy in the hyper-moral condition than in the obligatory moral condition. Moreover, the sense of inadequacy toward the hyper-moral agent was not affected by the participants’ self-ascribed morality.

A second set of studies (Study 3 and Study 4) show that the participants perceived the moral agent to be as positive as the hyper-moral one. However, participants perceived the moral agent’s group to be more positive than the hyper-moral agent’s group. Indeed, participants reported more positive impressions and behavioral intentions toward the moral agent’s group. Two further studies (Study 5 and Study 6) show the consistency of the results across different intergroup contexts. We are currently performing a study aimed at capturing the subtle emotional reactions of participants when they are faced with an agent performing a moral or a hyper-moral action. We are employing a facial expression recognition software (i.e., FaceReader) and the electromyography measures of muscular automatic activation (EMG). Taken together, the studies helped us to provide a better understanding of the social consequences of being morally exceptional and of the role of moral character in everyday life more generally.


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