Sociologists have developed a theory of the “moral self” that may help explain ethical lapses in the banking, investment and mortgage-lending industries that nearly ruined the U.S. economy.
Sociologists have long theorized that individual behavior results from cultural expectations about how to act in specific situations. In a new study, researchers Jan Stets, Ph.D., of University of California, Riverside and Michael Carter, Ph.D., of California State University-Northridge found that how individuals see themselves in moral terms is also an important motivator of behavior.
The bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders who contributed to the recession were able to act without shame or guilt because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behavior that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues, Stets explained.
“One’s identity standard guides a person’s behavior,” she said. “Then the person sees the reactions of others to his or her behavior. If others have a low moral identity and do not challenge the illicit behavior that follows from it, then the person will continue to do what he or she is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge.”
And the consequences can be severe, as witnessed by the economic meltdown brought about by the irresponsible practices of some bankers and others on Wall Street, which led to many Americans losing their homes, retirement savings, and jobs.
“The fact that a few greedy actors have the potential to damage the lives of many — as evidenced in the Bernie Madoff case — brings issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and just and unjust to public awareness,” the researchers said. “To understand the illicit behavior of some, we need to study the moral dimension of the self and what makes some individuals more dishonest than others.”
For the study, the sociologists surveyed more than 350 university students in a two-phase study that measured moral identity, assessment of specific situations as having a moral component, and emotions, such as guilt and shame.
The students were first asked how they responded in specific situations where they had a choice to do the right or wrong thing; for example, copy another student’s answers, drive home drunk, give to charity, allow another student to copy their answers, or let a friend drive home drunk.
Three months later, the students were asked to rate each scenario in moral terms, and how they thought individuals ought to feel after doing the right or wrong thing in each situation. The students placed themselves along a continuum between two contradictory characteristics — honest/dishonest, caring/uncaring, unkind/kind, helpful/not helpful, stingy/generous, compassionate/hardhearted, untruthful/truthful, selfish/selfless, and principled/unprincipled.
The more that individuals saw themselves as honest, caring, kind, fair, helpful, generous, compassionate, truthful, hardworking, friendly, selfless, and principled, the higher their moral identity, the researchers said.
“We found that individuals with a high moral identity score were more likely to behave morally, while those with a low moral identity score were less likely to behave morally,” Stets said. “Respondents who received feedback from others that did not verify their moral identity standard were more likely to report guilt and shame than those whose identities were verified.”
The goal is to live up to one’s self-view, the researchers said. “When the meanings of one’s behavior based on feedback from others are inconsistent with the meanings in one’s identity standard, the person will feel bad,” they said.
More research is needed to identify the source of moral identity meanings, the researchers add.
“Exposure to particular social contexts and individuals may encourage a higher moral identity. For example, when parents are involved in their children’s lives, their children are more likely to recognize moral values. Schools can also sensitize individuals to moral meanings by providing an atmosphere that fosters justice, virtue and volunteering. Religious traditions that promote reflection on moral issues and foster charitable work also help individuals recognize moral meanings.”
The study is published in the February issue of the journal American Sociological Review.