Study finds bias toward self dis­ap­pears under cog­ni­tive constraint

Boston, Mass. – Moral hypocrisy is an anti­so­cial behavior familiar to most of us in which people tend to judge their own moral trans­gres­sions more leniently than the exact same trans­gres­sions when com­mitted by others. Yet, until recently, the origin of this bias was not known. North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers Pier­carlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno have now found that at heart, the mind is just as sen­si­tive to our own trans­gres­sions, but that bias in favor of pro­tecting the self actu­ally grows out of cog­ni­tive ratio­nal­iza­tion processes. The research is dis­cussed in the latest issue of the Journal of Exper­i­mental Social Psychology.

In their study, Valdesolo and DeSteno demon­strated not only that par­tic­i­pants viewed their own trans­gres­sions as sig­nif­i­cantly more “fair” than the same trans­gres­sions enacted by others, but also that this bias was elim­i­nated under con­di­tions of cog­ni­tive con­straint. They found that hypocrisy readily emerged under normal pro­cessing con­di­tions, but dis­ap­peared under a cog­ni­tive load, which “ties up” the mind’s ability to engage in higher order ratio­nal­iza­tion and reasoning.

Our find­ings sup­port the view that hypocrisy emerges from delib­er­a­tive processes,” said David DeSteno, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “It stems from volitionally-​​guided jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, which shows that at a more basic level, humans pos­sess a basic neg­a­tive response to vio­la­tions of fair­ness norms whether enacted by them­selves or others.”

In their studies, the authors gave par­tic­i­pants the option to assign fun and onerous tasks to them­selves and others either ran­domly, or by per­sonal choice. Other par­tic­i­pants did not make the choice them­selves, but watched other indi­vid­uals assign them­selves the more enjoy­able task. When the authors asked indi­vid­uals to judge the fair­ness of these actions, everyone who assigned the prefer­able task to them­selves judged this action to be more fair than did those who judged another person assign the easy task to him or herself.

How­ever, when these judg­ments were made under cog­ni­tive con­straint (i.e., remem­bering a random digit string), “par­tic­i­pants expe­ri­encing cog­ni­tive load judged their own trans­gres­sions to be as unfair as the same behavior enacted by another,” said Pier­carlo Valdesolo, grad­uate stu­dent of psy­chology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “It is also clear that when con­tem­plating one’s trans­gres­sions, motives of ratio­nal­iza­tion and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion temper the mind’s ini­tial neg­a­tive response to fair­ness trans­gres­sions and leads to more lenient judgment.”

This study pro­vides strong evi­dence that moral hypocrisy is gov­erned by a dual-​​process model of moral judg­ment wherein the pre­po­tent neg­a­tive reac­tion to the thought of fair­ness trans­gres­sion oper­ates in tandem with higher order processes to mediate deci­sion making.

In light of our find­ings, future work should aim to fur­ther define the con­di­tions which temper hypocrisy and ulti­mately sug­gest ways in which humans can better trans­late moral feel­ings into moral actions,” added DeSteno.

For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact Renata Nyul at 617–373-7424 or at r.​nyul@​neu.​edu.

About North­eastern

Founded in 1898, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity is a pri­vate research uni­ver­sity located in the heart of Boston. North­eastern is a leader in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, urban engage­ment, and the inte­gra­tion of class­room learning with real-​​world expe­ri­ence. The university’s dis­tinc­tive coop­er­a­tive edu­ca­tion pro­gram, where stu­dents alter­nate semes­ters of full-​​time study with semes­ters of paid work in fields rel­e­vant to their pro­fes­sional inter­ests and major, is one of the largest and most inno­v­a­tive in the world. The Uni­ver­sity offers a com­pre­hen­sive range of under­grad­uate and grad­uate pro­grams leading to degrees through the doc­torate in six under­grad­uate col­leges, eight grad­uate schools, and two part-​​time divi­sions. For more infor­ma­tion, please visit www​.north​eastern​.edu.