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Poor People Judge Harm-Doers More Harshly

• January 22, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock)

New research suggests this reflects their greater vulnerability to people who commit injurious actions.

How harshly do you judge someone with a habit of hitting people? How about a lout who engages in sexual harassment?

Newly published research suggests the answer depends in part on how well you’re doing financially.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science finds people with low incomes judge wrongdoers more severely. French researchers Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau report this dynamic only applies to ethical issues involving injury or loss, and suggest it reflects the poor’s “lower ability to cope with the effects of others’ harmful behavior.”

Their results suggest our ethical beliefs are shaped, at least in part, by practical considerations. Moral transgressions don’t seem quite so bad if we’re in a financial position to easily deal with their consequences.

Those who were primed to think of themselves as relatively poor expressed harsher judgments of behavior that involved harming others. But in reacting to those scenarios involving societal taboos, they were no more judgmental than their counterparts.

Pitesa and Thau describe two experiments that provide evidence for their thesis. The first featured a huge set of data taken from the World Values Survey, which tracked the ethical beliefs of people in 56 countries over 13 years.

Participants were given eight behaviors in which others are harmed (including “lying” and “cheating on taxes”) and asked to judge them on a scale of one (never justifiable) to 10 (always justifiable). They also reported their household income, which allowed the researchers to rank them on a 10-point scale from rich to poor.

In addition, the researchers looked at inflation rates in each country, as determined by the World Bank. They figured that, while inflation makes everyone feel poorer, low-income people feel its effects more acutely.

The numbers (after taking into account such factors as education, religion, and race) confirmed their theory. Lower incomes were associated with harsher moral judgments. So was high inflation—but only for people with below-average incomes.

To determine why people feeling pinched cut wrongdoers less slack, Pitesa and Thau conducted an online experiment featuring 199 people, who were recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Participants were asked to list their monthly income on a one-to-11 scale, which was manipulated to convey the idea that their financial resources were either sufficient or severely lacking. Half marked their income on a scale that ranged from $0 per month to over $500 per month. For the others, the scale went from $0 to over $500,000.

They were then asked whether they thought of their income as low or high, and responded to a series of statements designed to measure how vulnerable they felt.

Finally, they read five scenarios describing people engaging in immoral actions. In half of the vignettes, harm was done to another person. The others featured behavior that hurt no one but broke moral taboos, such as two people “passionately kissing and caressing each other” while in line at the DMV. Participants rated the extent to which they found each behavior inappropriate or unacceptable.

Those who were primed to think of themselves as relatively poor expressed harsher judgments of behavior that involved harming others. But in reacting to those scenarios involving societal taboos, they were no more judgmental than their counterparts.

The perception of a “lack of material resources led to a significantly greater sense of vulnerability,” the researchers write. “(This) sense of vulnerability, in turn, led to harsher judgments of harmful transgressions.”

The results may be unnerving to those who assume their ethical judgments are based on rigid religious or philosophical principles. This research suggests they are, in fact, flexible enough to be influenced by our perceived place on the economic ladder.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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