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Categorizing Relationships Affects Our Moral Judgments

How different rules apply to different kinds of relationships.

Source: Pixabay

It’s a common dilemma—you go out to eat with a friend, and you have to choose who pays and how much. If the friend is also your supervisor, should they be allowed to pay for it all? If so, how strongly should you object to their offer to pay? If the friend is less well-off, should you pick up the tab? To keep things fair, should you go Dutch? Who paid last time?

It seems more complicated than such a simple act should be. Yet we intuitively know that different relationships call for different actions.

Some psychologists say that the ways we think about our relationships dictate not only how we divvy up restaurant bills, but also serious moral questions—like when we think killing is justified. These scholars think morality is about how we mentally categorize our relationships, and our attempts to maintain those mental categories.

According to anthropologist Alan Fiske (1991), we tend to categorize four types of relationships:

1. Communal sharing relationships, in which ingroups are essentially similar in relevant ways (e.g., military units, teams, and families)

2. Authority ranking, in which we rank ourselves and others’ relative positions (e.g., according to work titles, seniority, or caste)

3. Equality matching, in which others are viewed as equals (e.g., people with whom we “take turns,” or take care to maintain impartiality)

4. Market pricing, in which others are viewed as a trade partner (e.g., people we view through a contractual lens)

According to Rai and Fiske (2011), we are motivated to behave differently to maintain each of these relationship categories. And so, we find ourselves happily and freely sharing resources with family members, but get annoyed when an acquaintance repeatedly asks for favors without reciprocating or spending time to cultivate a friendship.

Source: Pixabay

Communal Sharing

Communal sharing relationships call for unity—an “all for one, and one for all” type of attitude toward the ingroup. Maintaining an ingroup isn’t all sunshine and roses, though. The flip side of this motivation is that it is highly partial; people are motivated to benefit those in the group over and above those outside the group.

Members of the ingroup are thought to have a common fate, and they want that common fate to be a good one. Maintenance of communal sharing relationships rests upon tribalism, and in an important sense, keeping the tribe “pure.” Ingroup members are morally motivated to eliminate these threats, sometimes at a great (moral) cost.

Parents who feel that their adult children are behaving reprehensibly may “cut them off” to maintain familial integrity. Rai and Fiske (2011) call attention to the Hutu Ten Commandments, in which the unity and fate of the Hutu are thought to be threatened by the Tutsi. This propaganda fueled the buildup to the Rwandan genocide.

Source: Pixabay

Authority Ranking

In other relational contexts, people are motivated to maintain a hierarchical order. This social arrangement involves a group of subordinates respecting and deferring to an authority figure, and in exchange, that authority figure is expected to lead, to protect, and, to some degree, to take responsibility for their subordinates’ actions.

Often, this arrangement is beneficial. A parent demands respect from their young and vulnerable children. In exchange, the parent is obliged to provide for their children, to keep them safe from harm, and to come to their defense.

Of course, this motivation also has its dark sides. While leaders are often thought to be legitimately entitled to more of the group’s resources (CEOs usually get higher pay and bigger offices), leaders may become authoritarian and corrupt. Milgram’s shock experiment also revealed that far too many subordinates are willing to follow questionable authority figures to the point of ostensibly seriously harming strangers.

Source: Pixabay

Equality Matching

Equality matching relationships are maintained by striking equal balances. This leads to many beautiful moral sentiments—such as the concept of human rights; governments ought to treat humans with dignity and equality. It also enables cooperation on turn-taking or in circumstances in which resources cannot be equally distributed (e.g., coin flips for kickoffs).

Humans have evolved elegant cooperation norms, such as tit-for-tat rules. These norms limit free-riders so that humans can generally trust one another in social and economic interactions.

Motivation to maintain these tit-for-tat principles and equality also means punishing behaviors thought to jeopardize balance. Hammurabi’s code reflects how far this motivation may go. In ancient Babylonia, an eye for an eye. Today, many countries persist in institutionalized balance-keeping via capital punishment: a life for a life.

Source: Pixabay

Market Pricing

Market pricing relationships are maintained by using an in-between system of value to compare two types of goods. It’s easiest to think about money as a system that allows a comparison of two dissimilar goods. In the economic market, we are motivated to maintain proportionality. We intuitively know that a car is worth more than a single apple, but perhaps an orchard would be a proportional payment.

These principles extend to social markets as well, when goods and evils are weighed against one another to determine the best course of action. Juries deliberate over how much time a criminal ought to be in prison, given the egregiousness of their crime. Commanders must determine how many lost lives are worth pursuing a “greater” good. At work, we expect a system of meritocracy, with the raise or promotion going to the most deserving employee.

The Mixing of Relationship Categories

Of course, each of our relationships is likely to be a mix of each of these categories. It’s what makes paying that restaurant bill so difficult to figure out. It’s also the reason for the conventional wisdom not to mix friendship with business.

Hurt feelings and moral outrage can ensue from different relationship construals. Imagine your friend underwent an invasive surgery. While they recover, you bring over some dinner and clean their house. Afterward, you have a warm glow for doing the right thing. Two weeks later, you open a letter in the mail and find that your friend has written you a check for your troubles, itemizing the amount paid for each task you completed.

It’s tacky and hurtful. Your friend has categorized you as a market pricing relationship and feels morally obliged to repay your efforts proportionally. But that means they think of you as less of an ingroup member than you had imagined. You thought of them first and foremost as a communal sharing friend, and your kindness was supposed to communicate the love you felt toward them. It seems that the way you categorize your relationships changes the moral fabric of your reality.

Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock


Fiske, A. P. (1991). Structures of social life: The four elementary forms human relations: Communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, market pricing. New York, NY: Free Press.

Rai, T. S., & Fiske, A. P. (2011). Moral psychology is relationship regulation: Moral motives for unity, hierarchy, equality, and proportionality. Psychological Review, 118(1), 57.

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