3 Ways That We Decide Who's a Good Person

Seemingly minor details of a deed can influence your impression of the doer.

By Matt Huston, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

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We are relentless critics of other people's moral character, but sizing up the heroes and villains we encounter on the street, in the news, and by way of our friends' gossip is a complicated task. Even seemingly minor details of a deed can influence your impression of the person who did it. 

A for Effort

As you watch a young woman help a stranger carry groceries, the number of bags she handles might sway your opinion of her. In a series of studies, psychologists Yochanan Bigman and Maya Tamir at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that a person was judged more positively for an act, such as returning a lost wallet, if he exhibited more effort in the process. The same was true for misdeeds, like wallet-stealing: More effort, aimed at the same objective, led to more negative judgments. When someone clearly invests in doing something for (or to) others in one instance, Bigman says, we tend to "take that as a signal of what's important for that person in life."

Fellow Feeling

People who willingly risk injury to help others, including firefighters and battlefield medics, are among the easiest to admire. But the mere appearance of sacrifice may be enough to trigger a positive response in us, which hints at the role emotion plays in moral judgment. Study participants rated a volunteer's moral character more highly if his volunteering came with an unexpected consequence for him, such as a bee sting. "The link between our notion of sacrifice and moral character is so strong that we might rely on it even in cases where it should be irrelevant," says University of Pennsylvania researcher and study co-author Rebecca Schaumberg. The volunteer's mishap also increased the amount of sympathy participants had for him, suggesting that in certain cases, feeling bad for someone might lead us to think him a better person.

Broad Strokes

In the seconds after a stranger holds the elevator door for you (or cuts you off on the highway), thoughts about that person's character will inevitably swirl in your mind. How much you extrapolate from the act may depend on your sense that people are consistent, according to a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Study participants learned about two men, who were either described as showing a mix of good and bad behaviors or cast distinctly as a good guy and a bad guy. Those character sketches framed how an unrelated person, Paul, was judged soon after. For example, when asked whether Paul, after doing something decent (such as returning extra change to a cashier), would do the right thing in a different situation, those who had read about the more complicated characters were less confident that he would. Our default expectation, though, seems to be that good follows good.

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