People are profoundly motivated to maintain a reputation as a morally good person

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New research sheds light on the type of sacrifices people are willing to make to protect their moral reputations.

“Tania Reynolds, Bo Winegard, and I were all graduate students in Roy Baumeister’s lab. (I left to begin my postdoc at the University of North Carolina after I received my Ph.D. in the summer of 2016.) Our common scholarly interest in the idea that the human self evolved for and serves social purposes was what brought us to choose this particular topic,” said Andrew J. Vonasch, the study’s corresponding author.

“My research in particular examines the relationship between morality and rationality. A lot of economic models of human behavior assume that people are only rational when they narrowly pursue their own self-interest, but history shows us that people are also tremendously concerned with being and appearing moral. We wanted to scientifically test how far people would go to protect their reputations, as this would speak to the social nature of the self.”

Vonasch and his colleagues analyzed data from more than 150,000 participants in 100 countries who completed the World Values Survey. They found that individuals from around the world thought avoiding doing anything people would view as immoral was more important than any non-moral value besides physical security.

In another set of surveys, the researchers found that a little over half of participants said they would rather die that have a lifetime reputation as a child molester. Seventy percent said they would rather have their hand amputated than be labeled a Neo-Nazi, while 30 percent said they would rather spend a year in jail but be forgiven than avoid jail but forever be labeled a criminal.

However, chopping off a limb is easier said than done. So the research devised two experiments to further test the sacrifices people would make to protect their reputations. They uncovered that many people preferred enduring pain or touching disgusting live worms to having their reputation damaged with an e-mail that described them as racist.

About 30% of college students submerged their hands in a pile worms and 63% submerged their hands in a nearly-freezing cold pressor to prevent the e-mail from being sent to their entire university. But the researchers believe it is likely that this finding is an underestimate. Many participants (correctly) expressed skepticism that the researchers would actually disseminate the damaging e-mail.

“Many people, if not most, are willing to make great sacrifices to protect their reputations,” Vonasch explained to PsyPost. “Luckily, we usually organize our lives so we don’t have to make major sacrifices–but our research strongly suggests that many people would if they had to.”

“People rated moral reputation as one of their most important values,” he continued. “They stated that, hypothetically, they would go to great lengths to protect their reputations. And when we had people in the lab think they might lose their reputations, they chose to put their hands in worms, or put themselves in pain, rather than suffer reputational damage. (Of course, being ethical scientists, we wouldn’t have actually damaged anyone’s reputation in our studies).”

The findings suggest that many ordinary people are willing to make sacrifices to maintain their status as a morally good person. But it is possible that people are also willing to make sacrifices to maintain other types of reputations.

“These studies focused on what people would do to not appear immoral,” Vonasch said. “We predicted that a reputation of being moral would be especially important to most people, because people are generally wary of immoral people who might cheat or swindle them. However, there are many other kinds of reputation that people care about–how they look, whether people think they are intelligent or rich or brave, etc. Our future research will investigate which types of reputation are most important to people in what circumstances.”

The study, “Death Before Dishonor: Incurring Costs to Protect Moral Reputation“, was published July 21, 2017 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.