Why ‘We’ Are Always Right and ‘They’ Are Not

Being right and being fair are often seen as a linear process in our minds. We often think that by being right about a moral situation, we are being fair. But, think of this – if we cut somebody on the highway, it’s funny, right? Or you probably had a good reason to do it. But when someone else does the same, they are mean or rude or “women” or don’t know how to drive. Along the same line of thought, many times when we can see something as wrong, inhuman or just plain silly, others don’t see it. On the other hand, is it also possible that we see people being silly and doing something stupid, especially or only if they aren’t our friends or family? That maybe, we give our family and friends the benefit of the doubt but don’t extend that courtesy to people we don’t like on a personal level or people who are different from us?  Well, psychology has an interesting say in the matter. A study by Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno from Northeastern University showed (what a lot of us seem to know intuitively) that people readily excuse unfair actions done by those who belong to the same social group (a social group is anybody we consider ‘our own’ – family, friends, community, nationality etc) but not to those who don’t belong to our social group.

The Thought Process

It is well-known in Psychology Academia and particularly in the field of Moral psychology, that people are capable of heinous acts and can justify those acts to themselves in a way that doesn’t cause them any discomfort.

This situation is so rampant that Psychologists call it moral hypocrisy.  So, if individuals have the capacity to do immoral acts and justify it, can this justification be expanded to their social groups?  The answer to the question, doesn’t look so promising. To look for answers the scientists tested for hypocrisy as the discrepancy between the individual’s judgement of what was fair and what wasn’t when the exact same action was carried out by themselves or others (in the following experiment)

What They Did 

76 participants were put into 1 of 4 conditions (situations). In all conditions the participants were to judge the fairness of the same action.

Condition 1 – Participants were told that an experimenter was examining people’s performance on two tasks – Green and Red. The Green task was a brief survey and short ten minute photo hunt. The Red task was a long 45 minute task. The participants were then told that due to the nature of the experimental procedure, the participants themselves would have to choose who would get the Green task. They could assign the Green task to themselves or the future participants. Whoever didn’t get the Green task would then do the longer Red task. The participants could either use a computerized random task assigning program or choose the task by preference. The participants were also required to fill out a questionnaire in which they had to answer a lot of random questions but the target question hidden within the others, was “How fairly did you act?”

Condition 2 – The participants had to provide feedback about another lab assistant (called confederates) performing the exact same procedure of assigning Red and Green tasks as in Condition 1. The participants saw the confederates assign themselves the Green task and the future participants the Red task. The participants then had to complete an evaluation of how fair they thought the process was.

Condition 3 and 4 – The exact same procedure at Condition 2 was carried out, but with one addition. The confederate who was assigning the tasks was made to seem either as an in-group member (an in group member is someone who we consider similar to ourselves, for example, an Indian might consider another Indian as in group member when given the option between an Indian and an Australian individual) or an out-group member. In each session, lab confederates played the role of the participants who were getting the tasks.

What They Found

Condition 1 – Only two people acted in a manner that would have benefited that future participants and all other participants gave themselves the Green task.  For the overall experiment, the scientists found that

People were prone to show hypocrisy for themselves and those who individuals who they considered were a part of their in-group.

Basically people readily excused the unfair acts of themselves and of their in-groups. The authors suggested that at the very basic level preservation of a positive self seemed to be the reason people were so subjective with their moral reasoning.

What That Means for Us

This means that we are more bias towards ourselves and our community and it’s possible that we are like that because we feel the need to maintain and justify our acts and those of whom we relate to.

  1. This means that in order to act fairly and justly, we need to be able to accept other perspectives, and understand that we are not always correct.

2. We need to be willing to listen to different opinions and different people.

3. We must read about things we don’t understand or people we don’t know about.

4. If you are uncomfortable with a conversation, or and especially, a certain section of people, it’s all the more reason to talk with them, have a dialogue and learn about people you don’t know. You’ll be surprised how similar we are. Ethnicity, race, gender, are basically man made distinctions that we can break down with conversation, tolerance and openness.

In order to be more open, fair and objective we must realize that our perception of what is right, isn’t the same as as what is fair or even what is right in the grand scheme of things in life. We need to be aware of our tendencies and train ourselves to alter them and consciously act more fairly. I hope you learned something new and meaningful. 

I’ll see you soon with amazing research. Till then, keep learning and growing.

The Paper

Valdesolo, P., & Desteno, D. (2007). Moral Hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibility of Virtue. Psychological Science, 18(8), 689-690. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01961.x


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