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Are 'Immoral' People Branded for Life?

Are ‘Immoral’ People Branded for Life?

People with an immoral reputation tend to have a difficult time changing others’ perceptions of them, potentially leading to problems at work and barriers in accessing fair and equal treatment in the legal system, according to new research published in the journal PLOS One.

For the study, researchers from the University of Surrey in England and the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy gathered and evaluated data from more than 400 participants regarding the behavioral expectations of people described as “moral” and “immoral.” Participants were asked to estimate the probability that a person possessing a characteristic (such as honesty) would act in an inconsistent manner (dishonestly).

The findings show that participants believe that moral people are more likely to act out of character (engage in an immoral behavior) than would an immoral person (engage in moral behavior).

For example, “covering for somebody” was considered by participants to be a behavior that could be displayed by a sincere person, whereas an insincere person was less likely to engage in behaviors such as “telling the truth.”

These results suggest that when people are perceived to have immoral traits, they will have a hard time changing how they are viewed by others, as they are thought to be less likely to change than a person seen as moral.

This finding is particularly damaging for those who have a questionable character or are facing legal proceedings, and it highlights the obstacles they must overcome in reversing others’ perceptions.

“Popular television shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ show that those viewed as morally ‘good’ are seen as more likely to act out of character and behave immorally on occasions,” said lead author Dr. Patrice Rusconi from the University of Surrey, Social Emotions and Equality in Relations (SEER) research group.

“However what we have found is that those perceived to be immoral are pigeonholed, and are viewed as more likely to act in certain ways, i.e. unjust and unfairly, and therefore unable to act morally on occasions.”

“How an individual is perceived is incredibly important, as if you are viewed negatively it can impact on your treatment in the workplace and in the legal system as you are judged on your past misdemeanors.”

In addition, the study investigated whether these findings would translate across different cultures. Researchers gathered data from over 200 Italian and American participants, who were asked a series of questions including “How likely do you consider it that a righteous person would behave in an unrighteous fashion?”

They discovered that despite cultural and lifestyle differences, Italian and American participants had similar perceptions; that moral people are more likely to act immorally than immoral people would act morally. The findings suggest that this is a problem encountered globally.

Source: University of Surrey

Are ‘Immoral’ People Branded for Life?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Are ‘Immoral’ People Branded for Life?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 Jul 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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