Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

morality-illo

(Photo: jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock)

Morality Can Trump Tribalism

• June 13, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock)

Encouraging research points to a way to decouple loyalty to one’s own tribe with disdain for outsiders.

The top news stories have been even more depressing than usual of late, with tribalism—accompanied by active hatred for perceived outsiders—emerging as a driving force everywhere from Middle Eastern battlefields to the halls of Congress. But encouraging new research points to a surprising way around this us.-vs.-them mindset.

It suggests a set of moral beliefs often associated with antagonism toward outsiders can, in fact, temper such aggressive impulses.

Specifically, a research team led by the University of Utah’s Isaac Smith reports a strong allegiance to concepts such as obedience and group loyalty does not necessarily equate with antipathy toward members of other groups.

The issue, the authors write in the journal Psychological Science, is whether one pays lip service to these values, or genuinely incorporates them into one’s identity. People who fall into the latter category generally believe all people—including outsiders—are “deserving of moral regard.”

“Having a strong moral identity can mitigate the effect of the binding foundations, which otherwise might allow people to justify the use of torture for the sake of protecting their in-group.”

“This bodes well for the continued effectiveness of moral identity as a countervailing force against other human tendencies that elevate tribal loyalties and concerns above all else,” the researchers write.

Their study is based on two previous bodies of research. The first is the set of basic moral foundations laid out by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt divided mankind’s fundamental moral impulses into those that protect the rights of individuals (such as avoiding harm and ensuring fairness) and those that bind societies together (including obedience and loyalty).

Not surprisingly, people who are more invested in the “binding” moral foundations (which, in a Western context, means social conservatives) have widely been pegged as magnanimous to their own group but largely hostile to outsiders. But Smith suspected that was an oversimplification.

He pointed to a second line of psychological research: “moral identity,” which is the degree to which a person’s sense of self is based in his or her ethical code. Smith reasoned that those who base their identity on their moral beliefs would be more accepting of outsiders.

In their paper, he and his colleagues describe three experiments that back up their thesis.

All of their participants responded to two sets of statements—one measuring which of Haidt’s moral foundations most closely match their own beliefs, and a second measuring how strongly their moral inclinations impact their sense of identity. (For the latter, they responded to such statements as “It would make me feel good to be a person who has these characteristics” and “Being someone who has these characteristics is an important part of who I am.”)

The first experiment featured 344 people recruited online who were asked whether they felt torture is a justifiable technique for interrogating suspected terrorists. They answered on a scale of one (often justified) to four (never).

Not surprisingly, those who scored highly on the “binding” moral foundations were less likely to condemn torture. However, this result “was attenuated among people with high moral-identity scores,” the researchers write.

This suggests “having a strong moral identity can mitigate the effect of the binding foundations, which otherwise might allow people to justify the use of torture for the sake of protecting their in-group,” Smith and his colleagues conclude.

These results were duplicated in a second online experiment, as well as a third one featuring 53 college undergraduates. They were primed with ethical concepts by writing words such as “fair” and honest” under the guise of a handwriting test.

Afterwards, the students were asked to imagine that they, and a group of foreigners, were trapped after an avalanche. Would they share their limited supply water with these outsiders?

Among those oriented toward loyalty and obedience, the answer was generally no—unless their identity was tied deeply to their moral beliefs. “A strong moral identity seems to have (checked their tendency) to favor their in-group at the expense of the out-group,” the researchers write.

The results suggest a strong sense of moral identity could temper “some of the less-desirable effects of the binding foundations,” Smith and his colleagues conclude. They add that this could potentially be achieved by “creating environments that increase the salience of people’s moral self-concepts.”

While the results need to be duplicated, it is hopeful to learn that intense loyalty to one’s group needn’t produce hatred for outsiders. The key is getting the most zealous patriots and hard-core believers among us to think seriously about themselves as moral beings.

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


September 12 • 12:00 PM

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you’d be if the government didn’t interfere with your life, but that’s not what the research shows.


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.