Art Markman
Source: Art Markman

It is unsurprising that we like people who believe the way we do. It is easiest to have conversations with those who have the same opinions on key issues. This is particularly true for moral issues, which get at our most deeply held values. Being confronted with key differences on moral values can lead to strong emotional reactions.

From this general observation, it might seem like any differences in moral values between people would decrease how much they like those other people and how much time they would want to spend with them. 

A fascinating paper by Nadine Obeid, Nichole Argo, and Jeremy Ginges in the March, 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin makes a more refined set of predictions. 

These researchers point out that you can divide moral values into two broad classes — Autonomy values and Binding values. Autonomy values are ones in which people hold a strong moral judgment that people should be treated fairly and that they should not do harm to others. Binding values are ones in which people hold a strong moral judgment that being bound to a social group is important and that there are certain things that are pure and sacred.

The argument in this paper is that people recognize that the ideals that bind them to a particular group will differ from one group to another. Members of different religions or sects of a particular religion recognize that there are particular beliefs and practices that they adhere to that followers of another religious tradition do not. In contrast, beliefs about fairness and avoiding harm to others (the Autonomy values) should hold across groups. As a result, similarities among individuals from different groups in these Autonomy values should predict how much people from different groups would want to spend time together.

They tested this idea in several studies. One looked at Arabs and Berbers in Morocco. The 100 participants in this study were asked to rate the importance of several moral values to them. These values related to Binding or Autonomy. Then, they rated their belief about the importance of these values to the other group—so Arabs rated the importance of these values for Berbers and vice versa. After that, participants rated what percentage of their neighborhood they would want allocated to the other ethnic group as well as measures of social distance including items like whether they would want to have dinner at the home of someone from the other group.

Difference in values was obtained by subtracting the importance of particular values as moral values for each participant from their ratings of importance of those values for the other group. The most important predictor of desire to live near and be socially close to members of the other ethnic group was similarity in Autonomy values. That is, believing that members of another group would treat people fairly and do no harm made people more likely to want to live near them and to spend time with them. Differences in Binding values had a smaller influence on measures of social distance.

A second study repeated this analysis with Christians, Sunni, and Shiites in Lebanon. Again, people who saw themselves as similar to other groups in Autonomy values were more likely to want to be socially close to members of those other groups. Similarities in Binding values did not predict the desire for social closeness.

These studies suggest that people can be tolerant of value differences between themselves and others that reflect their group membership. They generally understand that belonging to another group means that members of that group are likely to have different beliefs about what is pure or sacred. What people have difficulty accepting is others who differ in the degree to which they want to treat all people fairly and to avoid doing them harm. As a result, they prefer to surround themselves with people who are similar to them in their beliefs about fairness.

Just from these two studies, of course, it is hard to know exactly what is causing this willingness for social closeness. Is it the case that seeing similarities in values creates a desire for social closeness? Perhaps a desire for social closeness makes people believe that members of other groups are similar to themselves in their beliefs about fairness and harm.

The authors acknowledged this problem, and did an experimental study that did not quite seem to address the relationship between social distance and moral values. I won’t describe this additional study here, but rather just say that more work needs to be done to further understand the relationship between Autonomy and Binding values and social distance. 

That said, it is still quite interesting that Autonomy values (fairness and avoiding harm to others) is more strongly related to social closeness than Binding values.  

References

Obeid, N., Argo, N., & Ginges, J. (2017). How moral perceptions influence intergroup tolerance: Evidence from Lebanon, Morocco, and the United States. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(3), 381-391.

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