Feeling Bad When Someone Does Good: Consequences of Moral Self-Threat and the Role of Applicability

Tucker, Jane, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wilson, Timothy, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Learning about another’s morally admirable behavior can feel inspiring; it can evoke positive feelings toward humanity and the desire to become better people. But it can at other times feel threatening; instead of feeling inspired, we might find ourselves looking for reasons to disparage and dismiss the moral actor. Past research offers support for both these reactions, but little to help explain why one might occur over the other in any given instance. This dissertation aims to help address this gap by investigating a possible antecedent of the latter reaction: perceived applicability of the act in question. In addition, it raises the previously untested question of whether people might sometimes respond to feeling threatened in the moral domain by increasing their own prosocial behavior. Across four studies, I address these questions by exposing college students to a fictitious article about a peer who donated his or her kidney to a stranger and gauging their reactions. In two of the four studies (1 and 3), I examine the role of perceived applicability by contrasting the article, which contains language aimed at bringing kidney donation into the realm of something participants feel they can and should be willing to do, with a version devoid of such language. In each study, I test whether increased prosocial behavior might sometimes displace the more well-established response of derogation as a reaction to moral self-threat by offering participants a chance to behave prosocially either before or after they have been given the opportunity to derogate their peer. Results of these studies and a follow-up integrative data analysis offer modest support for both the role of applicability in producing moral self-threat and the situational nature of how people react to it. I conclude the dissertation with a discussion of its limitations and suggestions for how future research might work to resolve some of the questions raised but not answered by the present investigation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
social psychology, morality, social comparison, self-threat, do-gooder derogation, social judgment
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