Acting morally can be difficult, especially when it involves risking social disapproval and going against the crowd. Understanding what factors help people act morally when they are under pressure to conform to immoral demands can shed light on the importance of character in moral decision making. There has been a tradition in social psychology that suggests that whether a person acts morally is largely determined by circumstance and that a person’s character or values are not that important. However, this line of thinking is based on studies that focus on what most people do when under pressure to conform and ignore the minority who resist such pressure. A study on “moral rebels” suggests that people who have a strong sense of their moral identity are more likely to act morally under pressure, indicating the importance of personal character.

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Rebelling against authority can sometimes have serious consequences...
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There has long been debate in psychology about what prompts people to behave morally. While lay people might naturally assume that people’s moral decisions reflect their moral character, social psychologists have had a long history of disputing this, arguing instead that features of the situation that the behaviour occurs in influence people’s moral decisions much more than most people suspect or are willing to admit. As evidence of this, they point to many classic experiments in which people are pressured to act in ways that conflict with their moral values. The most famous of these are Milgram’s obedience studies in which participants were commanded by an experimenter to administer electric shocks to an unwilling “learner” whenever the latter made a mistake. Rates of obedience in these experiments were surprisingly high, as much as 67 percent in the original study. Interestingly, related research suggests that most people under-estimate rates of obedience in these studies, thinking that only a minority of people would obey such destructive commands, and denying that they themselves would obey the experimenter in the same situation.

These experiments were very interesting and yielded important insights into human behaviour. However, in the name of a philosophy called situationism, some psychologists have extrapolated beyond the results of these studies and made extreme claims to the effect that people’s behaviour in general is controlled by their external circumstances and that internal features of a person, such as their personality traits, moral values, and so on are not really important for understanding behaviour. Furthermore, as I discussed in my post on the so-called fundamental attribution error, some social psychologists like Richard Nisbett have even argued that people are largely mistakenly in thinking that “people behave honestly because they have the virtue of honesty,” because behaviour is largely determined by features of the situation rather than their personal characteristics. Additionally, Phil Zimbardo proposed that good and evil behaviour result from “banal” circumstances rather than their own moral choices, and that given the proper circumstances virtually anyone could become either a hero or an evil-doer. His go-to example is his (infamous) Stanford Prison Experiment, which supposedly showed that “good” guys could easily be induced to act badly under the right conditions. (I critiqued the Stanford Prison Experiment in detail in a previous post.)

As I have argued in previous posts, the extreme situationist view is conceptually and empirically flawed for many reasons, particularly because it is overly simplistic. Behaviour is a product of both features of the person and their situation, not just one or the other. Classic studies like Milgram’s obedience experiments do illustrate that many people (but not all) experience internal conflict when presented with demands that clash with norms of good behaviour, as they become torn between the social norm to obey an authority figure and the norm to avoid harming others. They also show that most people are reluctant to admit their own embarrassing moral weaknesses in this regard. However, among their other flaws, situational analyses generally ignore individual differences in the outcomes of these experiments. More specifically, they tend to focus almost exclusively on those who caved in to pressure to do something wrong and ignore the solid minority of participants who did not. For example, in Milgram’s experiments, a third of participants refused to obey the experimenter even when pressure to obey was at its strongest. Similarly, in Zimbardo’s prison experiment, even though participants cast in the role of prison guards mostly acted badly (because they were encouraged to do so), about a third of them were described as “good guards” who tried to treat the “prisoners” kindly, e.g. by smuggling in meals for them.

Resistance to situational pressure is a rather neglected topic in psychology. Stanley Milgram himself expressed great interest in understanding individual differences in obedience and disobedience in his experiments, but was unable to follow up on this, and the topic is still not well understood (Miller, 2014). However, the fact that some people successfully resist situational pressure to act against their values suggests that character can play in an important role in moral decision making. An interesting study on the traits of “moral rebels” illustrates this (Sonnentag & McDaniel, 2012). In this experiment, participants were asked to write an argument describing a situation in which they would feel justified in saying aloud negative things about an overweight individual. Research suggests that many people do have negative thoughts and feelings about overweight people, yet speaking them aloud violates social norms about not hurting others. Hence, in this situation, participants could either conform with situational demands to comply with the experimenter’s request, which would be considered normal behaviour under the circumstances, or make a principled refusal to violate their moral values, by disobeying this request. That is, the experiment was designed to give participants an opportunity to demonstrate “moral rebel” behaviour, i.e. standing up for one’s principles when it would be easier and socially acceptable to give into pressure.

Additionally, participants were asked to think of several personal role models, and to rate these role models and themselves on 12 moral traits representing character strengths (e.g. “tells lies vs. honest,” “fearful vs. brave”). More specifically, participants were asked to rate both their ideal self (how they would like to be) and their real self (how they perceive themselves currently) on these traits. Additionally, they rated themselves on 16 personality attributes assessing both interpersonal (how one relates to others) and intrapersonal (feelings about oneself) characteristics. They also completed a moral rebel scale, consisting of a series of statements about their willingness to refuse to go along with others when this conflicts with their desire to adhere to their own beliefs even in the face of social pressure (e.g. “I am not afraid to stand up to others in order to defend my beliefs”). Participants also completed a measure of interpersonal social aggression (e.g. “How often do you reduce someone’s opportunity to express her/himself?”)

As expected, most participants complied with the experimental writing task, while only a minority rebelled by refusing to comply on moral grounds. (Specifically, 106 people complied, 21 rebelled.) For example, those who rebelled wrote statements like “It is never okay to verbalize cruel thoughts about an overweight person because you may hurt their feelings.” On the other hand, compliant participants wrote things like “I would vocalize negative thoughts when an overweight person takes up too much space on a plane.” (There were only two people who simply wrote off-topic, and these were not considered moral rebels, because they did not present moral arguments. These were not considered further.)

Not surprisingly, the rebellious participants scored higher than the compliant ones on the moral rebel scale. Furthermore, moral rebels showed higher levels of what the authors called moral trait integration. This was calculated by comparing the difference between participants’ scores on each of the 12 moral traits, and the highest possible score for each trait. Smaller average differences across all traits indicated higher integration. Higher moral trait integration scores were also associated with higher moral rebellion scale scores, and lower interpersonal social aggression scores, indicating less willingness to aggress against others. Additionally, moral rebels’ ratings of their personal role models also showed higher levels of moral trait integration compared to the role models of the non-rebels.

Somewhat more surprisingly, moral rebels rated their interpersonal and intrapersonal characteristics less positively than non-rebels. That is, they had less positive views of themselves, suggesting they had lower self-esteem than obedient participants. I found this interesting because it suggests that people who rate themselves as highly moral don’t just do so because they have generally positive views about themselves (i.e. they don’t necessarily think of themselves as wonderful in every possible way). In fact, they may be more humble and self-effacing than less moral people.

Wikimedia commons, image is in public domain
Acting morally requires inner strength, not just lucky circumstances
Source: Wikimedia commons, image is in public domain

This was a small study on a narrow aspect of moral rebellion, yet I think that it does illustrate some important features of moral decision making. One of the lessons I draw from the study, is that it shows that personality does indeed matter in terms of how people respond to situational pressures. While it does seem true that most people, when confronted with social pressures to behave in less than morally desirable ways, are likely to cave in, this does not necessarily mean that personal attributes are unimportant for understanding moral behaviour. On the contrary, what it suggests is that people who cave in to pressure do not place as much importance on behaving morally as they would like to admit. To put it more harshly, most people are morally weak. On the other hand, the existence of moral rebels provides further evidence that individual differences in personality are more important for understanding moral behaviour than those in the situationist school of thought would like to acknowledge. That is, people with strongly developed moral traits do have the ability to resist to situational forces, and are not just victims of circumstance, contrary to the way some social psychological accounts of behaviour (e.g. compare Zimbardo’s comments about the “banality” of good and evil) portray people. It is worth pointing out though, that while moral rebel behaviour is surely admirable, it usually comes at a price. People who resist social pressure to conform risk being punished by their peers for making others look bad by comparison. Indeed, the authors of the moral rebels study consider the possibility that moral rebels might have more negative views of themselves not simply because they are more honest in their self-perceptions than others, but perhaps as a consequence of taking socially unpopular stands. Whether this is the case needs to be confirmed in further research. Additionally, considering the positive social value of people who act with moral integrity, it would be good to consider ways to support people in taking unpopular, but morally sound positions.  

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Related articles

The Ghost of Situationism and Why Personality Is Not a Myth

The Fundamental Attribution Error is Overrated

The Fundamental Errors of Situationism - continues the previous article

Individual Differences in the Stanford Prison Experiment - The Stanford Prison Experiment did NOT show that situations overpower personality

Are Heroes and Villains Really Just Victims of Circumstance? - argues against claims of the "banality" of good and evil

Heroes and Villains: The Contradictions Within Situationism - continues the previous article


Miller, A. G. (2014). The Explanatory Value of Milgram's Obedience Experiments: A Contemporary Appraisal. Journal of Social Issues, 70(3), 558-573. doi:10.1111/josi.12078

Sonnentag, T. L., & McDaniel, B. L. (2012). Doing the Right Thing in the Face of Social Pressure: Moral Rebels and Their Role Models Have Heightened Levels of Moral Trait Integration. Self and Identity, 12(4), 432-446. doi:10.1080/15298868.2012.691639

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