Thursday, October 17, 2019

I'm Morally Good Enough Already, Thanks!

In a fascinating new paper (forthcoming in Psychological Science), Jessie Sun and Geoffrey Goodwin asked undergraduate students in psychology to rate themselves on several moral and non-moral dimensions, and they asked those same students to nominate "informants" who knew them well to rate them along the same dimensions. Non-moral traits included, for example, energy level ("being full of energy") and intellectual curiosity ("being curious about many different things"). Moral traits included specific traits such as fairness ("being a fair person") but also included self-ratings of overall morality ("being a person of strong moral character" and "acting morally"). They then asked both the target participants and their informants to express the extent to which they aimed to change these facts about themselves (e.g., "I want to be helpful and unselfish with others..." or "I want [target's name] to be helpful and unselfish with others...") from -2 ("much less than I currently am") to +2 ("much more than I currently am").

Before I spill the beans, any guesses?

I've already got some horses in this race. Based partly on Simine Vazire's work, partly on my general life experience, and partly on theoretical reflections about the semi-paradoxical nature of self-evaluations of jerkitude and general moral character, I have speculated that we should see little to no relationship between self-evaluations of general moral character and one's actual moral character. Also, based partly on recent work in social psychology and behavioral economics by Cialdini, Bicchieri, and others, and partly again on general life experience, I have conjectured that most people aim for moral mediocrity.

You will be unsurprised, I suppose, to hear that I interpret Sun and Goodwin's results as broadly confirmatory of these predictions.

To me, perhaps their most striking result -- though not Sun's and Goodwin's own point of emphasis -- is the almost non-existent correlation between self-ratings of general morality and informant ratings of general morality. Neither of their two samples of about 300-600 participants per group showed a statistically detectable relationship (there was a weak positive trend: r = .15 & .10, n.s). Self-ratings of some specific moral traits -- honesty, fairness, and loyalty -- also showed at best weak correlations with spotty statistical significance (r = 0 to .3, none significant in both samples). However, other specific moral traits showed better correlations (purity, compassion, and responsibility, r = .2 to .5 in both samples).

In other words, Sun and Goodwin find basically no statistically detectable relationship between how morally good you say you are, and how honest and fair and loyal you say you are, and what your closest friends and family say about you.

Could the informants be wrong and the self-ratings correct? Well, of course! That thing I did that seemed immoral, unfair, and dishonest... of course, it wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed. In fact it was good! But only I fully appreciate that, since only I know the full details of the situation. Informants might underestimate my moral character. (If this sounds like suspicious self-exculpation, well, at least sometimes our moral excuses have merit.)

Alternatively, close friends and family might overestimate my moral character: The people who know me well who I nominate for a study like this might cut me more slack than I deserve. I might rightly be hard on myself for the dishonest things I've done that they don't know about or know about but forgive; or maybe they don't want to express their true middling opinion of the target participants in a study like this. Likely, something like this is going on in these data: Overall, informants gave higher moral ratings to target participants than the target participants gave to themselves -- practically at ceiling (mean 4.5 and 4.4 on a 1-5 scale, compared to 4.0 in the targets' self-ratings). Maybe this reflects the way the informants were chosen and how they were prompted to respond.

Without a general moralometer, or even observational data about plausibly moral or immoral behavior, it's hard to know how accurate such self- and other-ratings are. Nonetheless, the discorrelation is striking. While "people who know you well" might easily be wrong about your moral character, you might think that, if anything, participants would tend to nominate informants whose views of them align with their own self-conceptions (their best friends and favorite family members), in which case any error would tend to be on the side of overcorrelation rather than undercorrelation. The lack of correlation suggests an abundance of moral disagreement and error somewhere. My guess would be everywhere, with ample problems on both sides, for multiple reasons. Moral self-assessment is hard, and friend-assessment is at least dicey.

This isn't a general problem in the Sun and Goodwin data. The self-ratings and informant ratings of non-moral traits generally showed good correlations (mostly r = .5 to .7, p < .001) -- including for seemingly mushy traits like "aesthetic sensitivity" and "trust".

How about the moral mediocrity thesis? Do people generally express a strong desire to improve morally? Not in Sun and Goodwin's data. Respondents tended to prioritize reducing negative emotionality (e.g., depression, anxiety) and improving achievement (productiveness, creative imagination). Moral improvement appeared near the bottom of their list of goals. Given the opportunity to choose their three top goals among 21 possible general self-improvement goals of this sort, only 3% of target respondents ranked general moral improvement among those three. People who rated themselves comparatively high in moral traits gave even lower priority to moral self improvement than people who rated themselves comparatively lower, suggesting that they are especially likely see themselves as already morally "good enough" -- even if, as I'm inclined to think, such self-ratings of morality are almost completely uncorrelated with genuine morality.

[Detail of Figure 2, from Sun & Goodwin 2019; click to enlarge]

One thing that Sun and Goodwin did not ask about, which might have been interesting to see, is whether people would express willingness to trade away moral traits for desirable non-moral traits: If they could become more creative and less anxious at the cost of becoming less honest and less morally good overall, would they? I'm not sure I would trust self-reports about this... but I'd at least be curious to ask.

In their deeds, as revealed by the choices they make and the discussions they choose to have and not have and the goals they choose to pursue, people tend to show little interest in accurate moral self-assessment or in general moral self-improvement above a minimal, mediocre standard. In my experience, if asked explicitly, people won't typically own up to this. But maybe, as suggested by Sun's and Goodwin's data, they will admit it implicitly, or admit to pieces of it explicitly, if asked in the right kind of way.


howard b said...

Maybe older adults who have suffered and matured, and have had deep and varied relations and responsibility might produce a different result set; maybe college students in the thirties during the Depression or from a working class background, again would yield different results; which would hardly invalidate the data or your reading of that data

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, it would be interesting to look for age based and cultural differences!

Howie said...

Are you assuming commonly accepted rules of morality without regarding whether consequentialist or deontological or virtue etc. as Chomsky might accepts naturally accepted rules of grammar?
Further, might ethological perspectives on the discrepancy between performance, perception and the equivalent of morality in the animal world apply or enlighten?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

One of the nice things about the Sun & Goodwin study is that their most general measure doesn't assume any specific view of morality -- just self-rated morality, by one's own standards, whatever they happen to be!

Callan said...

Did they do any synchronization/contextualisation work?

Like say they ask the person about famous person X and rate how good they are on a scale of 1 to 10

Then they ask the informant the same question.

What if the person gives a rating of 5 for the famous person and the informant gives a rating of 3?

Well if the informant rates the person as less good than the person rates themselves, it may be that informant just rates everyone lower since they rated the famous person as lower.

But statistically you can take that into account. And if you don't then the results might meander all over the place - no so much because the results meander, but because each persons baseline in relation to each other just wasn't taken into account. The persons baseline is that the famous person is a 5 and the informants baseline is that the famous person is a 3. Do they cover this?