Monday, December 5, 2011

Are you Moral?

Most people think of themselves as pretty decent types, maybe not saints, but they tell themselves they're willing to do the right thing most of the time. But if you examine how people actually behave in various situations, situations that put their moral characters to the test, we don’t actually measure up to our own-self assessments.

Social psychologists have long known that our evaluations of other people are suspect in certain ways. More recently, they've uncovered surprising and provocative results about the ways in which people evaluate their own moral characters. Start with a simple example about evaluating others. Suppose Alice sees Bob trip over a rock and fall. Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless. But if Alice herself tripped over the same rock, she’d be more likely to blame the placement of the rock for her tripping. and not her own clumsiness.

In evaluating others, in other words, people are much more likely to focus on character, to the exclusion of situation, while in evaluating our own actions, we take full account of the effects of the situation. Social psychologists call this tendency to ignore the effects of the situation in evaluating others the fundamental attribution error. It’s also called actor-observer bias. That label highlights our tendency to make moral attributions in one way in our role as first person actor, and in a different way, in our role as third person observer.

What are your values and how do you ensure that they are applied in everyday life?


  1. What is interesting about the fundemental attribution error that you describe is that it is not a universal human error. In fact, it only applies to contries with "individualistic" cultures, such as the United States. Americans typically credit themselves when an occurance has positive consequences, but place responsibility on environmental factors when consequences are negative. But in cultures where the desires of the group are valued above the desires of the individual, such as Japan, an opposite effect is observed. Japanese people typically credit the enviroment when consequences are positive, but blame themselves when consequences are negative.

  2. I know we are done with this class now, but I figured I'd still go for a comment. This is an interesting phenomenon to point out, though, since it is, as Grace pointed out, culturally relative. I do think that acknowledging it shows the benefit of seeing situations as other people. The ability to actually consider "What if that were me??" is, I think, a very strong though also difficult viewpoint that could help people shape a better environment in which to live. If people in our culture blamed individuals less and the environment more, perhaps we would shape better institutions and systems for ourselves.


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