Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock Ph.D.


Morality Is Contagious

How we behave depends on how others treat us.

Posted Oct 08, 2014

What makes someone good or bad, right or wrong, immoral or moral? The science of morality has picked up a lot of steam in the last decade, seeking to understand how we develop a moral sense and how our actions might differ depending on our political affiliation, our religion, or how others treat us. Recently, Science published a paper reporting the results of a study looking at the moral experiences of over 1200 people on a daily basis. Here are some of the things they found:

First, moral experiences are surprisingly frequent. And, perhaps not surprisingly, being the target of a moral act makes people happy.

Second, morality is contagious. When other people act morally toward us, we tend to behave better. But, when we act morally it seems to license us to behave badly later.

Third, religious and nonreligious people don’t differ in the likelihood of committing moral and immoral acts but they interpret them differently. Religious folks tend to experience more intense guilt, embarrassment and disgust in response to the immoral deeds they commit and more pride in their moral acts compared to nonreligious people.

Fourth, political ideology drives how people think about moral and immoral acts. Liberals tended to be most concerned with fairness and honesty whereas conservatives are more focused on loyalty and authority. In a nut shell, how you lean politically relates to what you emphasize morally.

How did the researchers actually get this morality information and who did they get it from? The respondents were from the U.S. and Canada and ranged in age between 18 to 68. They were demographically diverse. Every person who participated in the study agreed to be randomly signaled, five times a day between the hours of 9:00 am and 9:00 pm on their smartphone, for three days. At each signal, people indicated whether they had committed, were the target of, witnessed or learned about a moral or immoral act in the past hour. They then described via a text message what the event was about and how they were feeling at that moment in time.

Moral decisions are all around us. And, how we act affects how we feel and how others feel too. When you are the target of a moral act earlier in the day, you are more likely to act morally later. But, when you have done your moral duty it seems to give you license to behave badly. Just knowing that these tendencies exist can go a long way in terms of making us aware of our behavior and helping us to act at our best.

For more on human behavior, check out my book “Choke

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Hofmann, W., et al. (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science, 345, 1340-1342.

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