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Born Bad or Just Learned Behavior?

Are people born bad? Or do they learn bad behavior from people around them, which means that it is possible they may change for the better?

A new study shows that the way we perceive people’s bad behavior — as either biological and innate or potentially changeable — affects how we perceive and treat them.

The study, from researchers at Columbia University, found that adults are less willing to be charitable toward “bad” individuals whose moral characteristics are attributed to an innate biological source. They are more apt to be generous toward individuals when led to focus on explanations for moral “badness” that suggest potential for change.

Unlike adults, children did not appear to distinguish between characters whose moral characteristics were described in different ways, the study discovered.

“If people want to take something away from this study and apply it to their own lives, it is to be mindful of how they talk about others and their transgressions,” said Larisa Heiphetz, an assistant professor of psychology and the study’s principal investigator. “People often encounter moral transgressions, whether in others’ behaviors or their own. This study reveals that the way we treat those individuals can be strongly influenced by the way others describe their transgressions.”

To learn how people perceive moral goodness and badness, Heiphetz and a group of Columbia students asked children and adults what they thought about a variety of morally good and morally bad characteristics.

They found that both children and adults were more likely to say that goodness, rather than badness, was something people are born with and a fundamental, unchanging part of who they are. In both groups, badness was more likely to be perceived as something that can improve over time.

That led Heiphetz to wonder if there were any consequences associated with this perception, so she gave children and adults material resources, including stickers and entries to a lottery, and told them about pairs of fictional people who had the same “bad” moral characteristics, but for different reasons: One was described in an essentialist way — born bad — and the other in a non-essentialist way — bad as a result of behavior they learned from other people in their lives.

When study participants were asked to share their possessions with the characters, the children shared equally, but adults shared more resources with the character described as bad due to learned behavior, with the potential to change.

When study participants were then told that neither of the fictional characters would ever change for the better, adults still shared more resources with the character who had been described as having learned the behavior.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Source: Columbia University

Photo: The study reveals that the way we treat those individuals can be strongly influenced by the way others describe their transgressions. Credit: Nicoletta Barolini/Columbia University.

Born Bad or Just Learned Behavior?

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). Born Bad or Just Learned Behavior?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Sep 2019 (Originally: 13 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Sep 2019
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