If you’re waiting for someone to become more helpful or generous, you may be waiting in vain, according to new research at Washington University in St. Louis.
The findings suggest that moral character is a relatively stable trait and that most people stay true to their intrinsic moral code, whether it’s good or bad, regardless of extenuating circumstances or even increased maturity.
“Our studies provide new and important evidence for the stability of moral character,” said lead author Kathryn Bollich, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences.
“Using naturally observed, everyday behaviors and self-reports of moral decision-making, we demonstrate that one’s morality is stable. These findings suggest that efforts to modify moral character may not be so simple. For example, efforts to make a roommate or romantic partner more helpful and sympathetic, or less condescending and critical of others, may be met with slow and minimal success.”
Bollich conducted two new studies as a member of the Personality Measurement and Development Lab at Washington University. Dr. Joshua Jackson, assistant professor of psychology and lab director, is a joint co-author on both studies.
While most morality research looks at situations that influence moral decisions and behaviors, Bollich’s research examined whether individual differences in morality remained stable across time and in different scenarios.
Her findings show that a person’s moral fiber can be gauged based on actions that demonstrate their outlook on moral issues, and that these core levels of morality remain fairly consistent across a range of morally challenging situations and surroundings.
The first study analyzed naturally occurring moral behaviors that were inconspicuously captured by a small digital audio-recorder that the study’s 186 participants carried continuously for a weekend or two.
The devices intermittently recorded snippets of conversations and ambient sounds from the participant’s everyday environments; these audio snippets were then rated based on how much they exemplified moral or immoral behavior.
The researchers discovered substantial individual differences in how often participants engaged in positive moral behaviors, such as showing affection, gratitude, sympathy, hope, or optimism, as well as negative moral behaviors, such as being sarcastic, condescending, arrogant, critical, blaming, or boastful.
For example, one person expressed gratitude during 17.5 percent of her conversations, and 16 people never expressed gratitude in any of their recordings. In addition, 10 people never criticized others in any of their recordings, whereas one person criticized others in 22.2 percent of his or her conversations.
While these patterns of moral behavior varied widely from person to person, individuals’ patterns of moral behavior remained surprisingly stable over time. In other words, how helpful or grateful someone is one weekend is similar to how helpful or grateful that person is on a following weekend, the study found.
In the second study, the researchers analyzed survey data collected from hundreds of college students across four years during their freshman and senior years.
These findings show that the students’ approach to moral decision-making across the four years of their college experience also remained stable over time, with one important change: As students move from freshman year to senior year, they become more likely to help a friend even when doing so requires them to ignore other ethical obligations, such as following the law or adhering to accepted social norms.
Since young adulthood remains a vital time for personality development and maturation, the researchers examined the data to determine if these factors might be driving changes in moral decision-making and behavior. Surprisingly, their analysis found that increased maturity and developing personality traits had little or no connection to changes in moral decision-making.
“Future research should continue to extend our understanding of moral character by examining how the combination of large life experiences — like graduating from college or starting a family — and smaller situational influences — like the personality or moral character of interaction partners — may or may not play a role in one’s morality and development,” said Bollich.
“Together, these approaches will help us capture a more complete picture of morality as it is manifested in everyday life and across the lifespan.”