Research suggests that we all perceive ourselves as more generous than others. For example, we tend to believe we are more likely than others to donate blood, give to charity, treat another person fairly, and give up our own seat in a crowded bus for a pregnant woman.

However, in a new study, researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business asked whether the extensive research on this type of self-righteousness overlooks an important ambiguity: When people say they are more moral than others, do they mean they are more saint-like than others or less of a sinner? In other words, do people believe they are “holier” than others or “less evil?”

To find out, researchers Drs. Nicholas Epley and Nadav Klein conducted four experiments to investigate how people judge themselves compared to other people in a variety of contexts.

All of the experiments show that self-righteousness is “asymmetric,” meaning that people tend to believe they are less evil than others, but no more moral than them.

Specifically, participants were less likely to make negative character inferences from their own unethical behavior than from others’ unethical behavior. They also believed they would feel worse after an unethical action than others would, and believed they were less capable of extreme unethical behavior compared to others.

In contrast, these self-other differences were much weaker in evaluations of ethical actions.

One of the causes of asymmetric self-righteousness is that “people evaluate themselves by adopting an ‘inside perspective’ focused heavily on evaluations of mental states such as intentions and motives, but evaluate others based on an ‘outside perspective’ that focuses on observed behavior for which intentions and motives are then inferred,” said the researchers.

Accordingly, the findings show that people who are more likely to assign cynical motives to their own behavior exhibit a smaller asymmetry in self-righteousness.

The researchers note that it is still unclear whether such self-righteousness looks the same in other parts of the world. While basic moral norms of kindness and respect for others seem to be fairly universal sentiments, more studies are needed to determine how culture-specific contexts could alter people’s tendency to feel morally superior to others.

“In countries where corruption is more common, the asymmetry in self-righteousness might be more pronounced because people will be more likely to observe unethical behavior committed by other people,” they said.

The researchers say the study has important implications for the promotion of ethics policies and procedures within organizations. For example, people may be more likely to resist policies aimed at preventing their own unethical behavior, simply because they don’t believe they would ever do anything unethical.

This suggests that framing policies as promoting ethical behavior rather than discouraging unethical behavior might be more effective in increasing support.

“Understanding asymmetric self-righteousness could help foster support for policies that can create more ethical people, and more ethical organizations,” they said.

The findings are published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Source: University of Chicago Booth School of Business