Anybody has the capacity to lie. They can lie on any scale, ranging from little white lies to spare someone's feelings to lies that completely obfuscate their identity from person to person.
What happens when those lies take over when they've gone so deep that they believe the lies they tell about their character?
A research team decided to study the ways in which people judge their own moral character versus how they actually behave, and the results are eye-opening.
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What To Trust
It's safe to say that we generally like to trust people. We want to take others at face value, we want to believe what they tell us about themselves so we may grow to trust them over time. After all, people tend to know themselves pretty well, so why would they lie to us about their character? Especially if, sooner or later, the truth will be discovered.
Well, recent studies show that lies like that take place far more often than you might think, as people actually tend to make themselves appear morally superior to those around them without practicing the traits needed to actually have good morals.
For You, But Not For Me
A paper published in the British Journal of Psychology explored the relationship between people who self-reported as having good moral character and their actual moral character, finding that they often contradicted themselves. In fact, the paper notes that these people are prone to something called 'moral hypocrisy'.
This hypocrisy would manifest in the ways they'd judge other people very harshly for their actions while cutting themselves a lot of slack for performing the exact same action, despite claiming that they have a strong moral character.
You'd think that character would lead them to holding themselves to the same standards as everyone else, but that's not the case.
Who's To Blame?
The study had 198 student participants analyzing and evaluating four different scenarios that described some sort of moral fault, one example being sharing information about a confidential project with a friend.
Some of the participants were told to put themselves in the role of the person who had shared secrets, while others were told to imagine it was a coworker. They were then told to assign a level of moral blame to themselves or the co-worker, whichever variation they were given.
To gather data related to the participants' view of their moral character, the research team used a scale that measured 'sensitivity to justice.' Participants would rate how upset they would be if someone who deserved a certain reward wasn't given it, as one example. They also filled out a questionnaire that would assess their level of motivation to manage their reputation.
So these participants were measured on three different axes; guilt relating to either themselves or a coworker doing something morally wrong, their sensitivity to justice, and how much they care about their reputation.
Results showed that participants who weren't concerned with their reputation and were highly sensitive to justice judged themselves far more harshly for sharing a confidential secret (or another wrongdoing) than the coworker did.
The team also found that those who did care about their reputation while also having a high sensitivity to justice judged the coworker much harsher than themselves. These people displayed hypocrisy because despite claiming to care about moral injustices and people not getting due punishment/reward, they were more than happy to judge themselves far less harshly when they were in the wrong.
Turning To Shame
Even though they seemed quick to judge others more intensely than themselves, those with high concern for their reputation and high sensitivity to justice didn't seem to judge anyone more positively than the other sample groups. This means they see criticism, punishment, and condemnation as more useful tools for changing peoples' behaviors than praise. That, or they find no enjoyment in praising others, instead wanting to implement shame.
"People may thus readily employ condemnation as a strategy to demonstrate their righteousness to others," the team wrote in their findings.
A Different World
Of course, the research team knows that anonymous answers obtained based on hypothetical scenarios could differ greatly from real-world applications, especially if scaled upwards and placed against those with high-societal rankings such as politicians or businesspeople.
The way those groups of people view morality, both in general and how well they embody it, would be wildly different compared to the average citizen. Their perception of their own morality and how it manifests also has a much bigger impact on the world at large, so the implications of their results would be vastly different in scale.
Our Own Lives
However, for us people reading this, we're likely more concerned with the inner workings of our own social circles anyway. We all know someone who touts themselves as an amazing, virtuous person even though their actions certainly say otherwise. Knowing that there's a scientific trend that explains their behavior and confirms they're not as good as they say they are is vindicating.
That's part of the fascination with these studies. Not only does it help us learn about society as a whole, but being able to see the reflections of this research in our daily lives helps us understand it better!
What To Strive For
If you fear that this is a path you wander down without even realizing it, there's a simple way to keep yourself on track, according to the team.
"A well-known Golden Rule of morality is to treat others as you wish to be treated yourself."
It's true! If you spend your time touting moral superiority while being judgemental behind the scenes, don't be surprised when that judgment catches up to you and starts applying to you in kind.
We're all on this planet for a small amount of time. We ought to spend less of it concerned about our own reputations and more of it concerned about making life a pleasant experience for everybody.