Moral Signals, Public Outrage, and Immaterial Harms

D. Tannenbaum, E. L. UHLMANN, D. Diermeier

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

November 2011, vol. 47, n°6, pp.1249-1254

Departments: Management & Human Resources

Keywords: Moral judgment, Moral character, Signaling, Informational value

Public outrage is often triggered by “immaterially” harmful acts (i.e., acts with relatively negligible consequences). A well-known example involves corporate salaries and perks: they generate public outrage yet their financial cost is relatively minor. The present research explains this paradox by appealing to a person-centered approach to moral judgment. Strong moral reactions can occur when relatively harmless acts provide highly diagnostic information about moral character. Studies 1a and 1b first demonstrate dissociation between moral evaluations of persons and their actions—although violence toward a human was viewed as a more blameworthy act than violence toward an animal, the latter was viewed as more revealing of bad moral character. Study 2 then shows that person-centered cues directly influence moral judgments—participants preferred to hire a more expensive CEO when the alternative candidate requested a frivolous perk as part of his compensation package, an effect mediated by the informativeness of his request