An Illusion of Improvement

Author: ORCID icon
Austin, Maura, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Converse, Benjamin, Psychology/Batten, University of Virginia

The goal of this research is to understand the social cognition that contributes to how people make judgments about those who have broken a moral code. Under what conditions are people open to the idea that a transgressor can change their moral character? In the current project, I investigate whether introducing incidental information about change—in the form of an incidental appearance change—can cue perceivers to infer that a change in moral character has occurred. Study 1 documents the novel finding that changes in appearance cue perceivers to infer that a moral character change has occurred. In an exploration of mechanisms, I have found that appearance changes are more potent than other types of incidental identity changes (Study 2); that changes in appearance have the opposite effect for extremely prosocial actors (Study 3); and that changes in appearance make transgressors seem like better people by humanizing them (Study 4). In a further exploration of mechanism, Studies 5 and 6 test a holistic mindset mechanism, whether changes in appearance prompt perceivers to zoom out and consider more contextual information when making judgments about moral character. Study 7 investigates a moral patiency mechanism, whether appearance changes make transgressors seem like better people by making them seem less agentic and intentional in their actions, which in turn makes them seem less blameworthy for their transgressions. Studies 5 - 7 did not find compelling evidence to suggest that the appearance change effect operates through a moral patiency mechanism nor a holistic mindset mechanism. Instead, it seems that changes in appearance make past offenders seem more remorseful, which in turn makes them seem less blameworthy and more capable of experiencing feelings.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Moral cognition, Appearances, Moral judgment
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