The (Income-Adjusted) Price of Good Behavior: Documenting the Counter-Intuitive, Wealth-Based Moral Judgment Gap

Drew S. Weiner, Sean M. Laurent

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Poor people are punished more frequently and more severely than are wealthy people for their transgressions, suggesting that an agent's wealth affects how they are morally evaluated. To our knowledge, this has not been tested empirically. An initial study found that people expect the poor to be judged more harshly than the wealthy. Several other experiments consistently found that the reverse was true: Poor targets were judged as less immoral than wealthy targets for the same moral violations. Explanations of this wealth-based moral judgment gap were explored, including differences in descriptive/prescriptive expectations, global anti-wealthy or pro-poor biases, and differences in how people understand and explain the behavior of wealthy and poor moral transgressors. Although the moral judgment gap is likely multiply determined, poor targets were consistently viewed as having better reasons than the wealthy to act badly. Thus, the immoral behavior of poor targets was attributed to situational factors and was discounted, whereas wealthy targets' behavior was perceived as less excusable and was attributed primarily to bad moral character. A final study extended our findings to the domain of prosocial behavior. Consistent with a reasons-based explanation, poor targets were viewed as having better moral character than wealthy targets when their behavior benefitted others, and wealthy targets were viewed as having more extrinsic reasons to behave prosocially.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience

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