If You’re Bad, Here's How to Get People to Think You’re Good

New research explains how the "mere liking effect" changes our moral judgments.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

 Alexander Cato/Flickr
Source: Alexander Cato/Flickr

Consider the protagonist Walter White from the series Breaking Bad.

Throughout the series, he manufactures methamphetamine, repeatedly puts his family in danger, and commits multiple murders.

And yet viewers liked him. In fact, some even defended him. How is this possible?

You might think your moral judgments are objective. In fact, research shows most of us believe our moral views are just as factual as scientific statements.

But what if our moral judgments are not as impartial as we think? What if they’re influenced by something totally subjective: How much we like someone?

When we form impressions of other people, we pay special attention to their moral character and their competence. In fact, little else goes into our impressions beyond these two dimensions: Is this person good or bad, and is this person capable or incompetent?

And of these two dimensions, we prize moral character more.

But does liking a person influence our opinion of their morality? People hold the ideal that impartiality is key to making clear moral judgments. Which is why it’s important to see what subtle effects influence us.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers examined how our attitudes influence our moral judgments. The paper is called “The mere liking effect: Attitudinal influences on attributions of moral character.”

Specifically, researchers wanted to know how much our liking of a person influences our judgments of them. These judgments included measures of morality, competence, and trustworthiness.

But what makes us like a person? Well, we like others who are similar to us. 

In the first experiment, researchers had participants complete a questionnaire. The questions consisted of hot button issues. These included abortion, capital punishment, pornography, gay marriage, and national traditions.

Next, researchers asked participants to read the responses of other individuals. Participants believed these individuals had also taken the same questionnaire. In fact, researchers manipulated the answers to be similar or different from participants.

Some participants read the answers of individuals who gave similar answers to them. Other participants read the answers of individuals who gave different answers than them.

Then the participants reported their impressions of these individuals. Their reports included how much they liked the individual. They also reported their measures of moral trust, competence, and trustworthiness.

For example, researchers asked participants how likely the individual, when given too much change in a store, would return the surplus to the cashier.

A question about competence asked participants how likely the individual would study really hard for a test.

People liked those who were similar to them. More interesting, though, is that people judged those they liked to be more moral, competent, and trustworthy.

Let’s return to Walter White. Breaking Bad begins by showing Walter as an everyman. He has an ordinary life as a schoolteacher, he loves his family, and he struggles to pay the bills. Then he learns he has cancer.

Viewers identify with him and his struggles. They grow to like him. This allows us to find excuses for his later transgressions, with some viewers going so far as to argue he’s still a good person at heart.

But it could just be that we don’t so much find those we like as particularly moral or competent. Rather, we might simply view people we dislike as particularly immoral or incompetent.

To rule this possibility out, researchers ran another experiment. This time, they added a face.

Specifically, they used the same procedure as the first experiment. But this time each participant looked at the face of the individual they believed they were assessing.

The face had a neutral expression and was of average attractiveness. Every participant viewed the face of this individual. Then they assessed the individual’s morality, competence, and trustworthiness.

But researchers added a control condition. This time, some participants simply looked at the face and reported their impressions. They gave their judgments based on appearance, with no other information.

For the other conditions, participants had access to questionnaire information and the face.

Again, people judged similar individuals to be more likable, moral, trustworthy, and competent. But neither dissimilar nor similar individuals differed significantly from the control group.

In other words, it’s unclear whether people view similar individuals as especially moral. Or if we view dissimilar individuals as especially immoral.

Still, results showed when people like someone, they view them as brighter, more moral, and more trustworthy.

Researchers then ran another experiment. This time they had participants engage in a video chat with another person who they believed was also a participant. Unbeknownst to the participants, the person was actually an actor working with the researchers.

Researchers asked participants to express different emotions (surprise, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust, anger). The other person (an actor) then had to guess what emotion the participant was portraying.

For half of participants, the actor, as she guessed the emotion, expressed the emotion herself on her face. For the other half, the actor maintained a neutral expression as she guessed.

The reason behind this is that when others mimic us, we tend to like them more. You may have heard of “mirroring." This is when two people start to copy one another’s body language when they like each other.

Next, researchers asked participants a series of questions about the actor. They asked about the morality of the actor (just, fair, honest). And they asked about her competence (efficient, competent, intelligent).

People liked the actor who mimicked them more. And people viewed the actor who mimicked them as more moral. Mimicry, though, didn’t influence their judgments of the actors competence.

Overall, researchers found that simply liking a person makes us think they are more moral. We predict they’re more likely to do the right thing.

We may believe we can make objective moral assessments and be impartial judges. But this study suggests we are in fact influenced by the most subjective of factors: how much we like someone.

As the researchers put it, “Purportedly objective judgments of morality (as people typically believe) appear to be heavily influenced by liking-disliking, a paragon of subjective preferences.”

Liking someone changes our perception of their moral character. Keeping this in mind could help us to be more honest with our moral judgments.

Follow Rob on Twitter @robkhenderson