A large body of research indicates that egocentrism shapes moral judgments. Now, new research indicates that people not only prefer moral decision that benefit them, some people — particularly those high collective narcissism — also display a bias towards moral decision that benefit their group.
The new findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“In the past, we found evidence that people judge unethical actions of other people less harsh when they benefit from them. Thus, we wanted to investigate if the same kind of self-interest bias would be observed on the group level when in-group members act in a morally ambiguous way that benefits the group,” said study author Konrad Bocian of the University of Kent and SWPS University.
Bocian and his colleagues conducted four separate studies to examine how moral judgments were influenced by collective narcissism, which is characterized by a belief in the exaggerated greatness of the social, political, or national group to which one belongs.
In two initial studies, which included 589 individuals from Poland and the United Kingdom, participants were asked to judge the morality of a fictional prosecutor who was either presented as a member of their own country or another national group. The participants read a fake news article about a pub owner in Poland or England who ejected English or Polish customers because of an altercation provoked by another customer. The incident was reported to police but the local prosecutor dropped the case against the pub owner.
The researchers found that, among those high in national collective narcissism, the prosecutor’s tended to be viewed as less moral when it favored outgroup members compared to when it favored ingroup members. In other words, British participants high in collective narcissism viewed the prosecutor as more moral when the prosecutor was described as being a fellow a British person compared to when the prosecutor was described as being Polish.
“Suppose the interests of our group might be advanced, even at the cost of immoral actions of ingroup members. In that case, people might sometimes use moral judgements to protect the moral image of their group and group members. This is specifically true for people who hold a defensive belief in ingroup greatness that is not appreciated by others,” Bocian told PsyPost.
Interestingly, strongly identifying with one’s nation did not have similar effects, which “suggests that only individuals defensively identified with the group are susceptible to egocentric interpretations of moral judgements,” the researchers said.
In a third study, which included 400 American individuals, the researchers asked Democrats and Republicans about the U.S. Senate’s decision to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly, moral judgments about Kavanaugh’s confirmation were highly partisan. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to believe the decision was ethical and fair. But this bias was even stronger among those high in partisan collective narcissism.
In a fourth and final study, which included 711 American participants, the researchers examined judgments of President Donald Trump’s decision to stand by Saudi Arabia despite information indicating that the Saudi Crown was aware of the plan to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Some participants read that Trump’s decision was made in interest of the U.S. economy, while others read that his decision made in interest of the world economy.
Participants high in national collective narcissism judged Trump’s decision as less immoral when they read that it served the national interest of the United States. Among those low in collective narcissism, whether or not Trump served the national interested had no significant impact.
“In this paper, we relied on recent developments in research on collective narcissism and ingroup identification to elucidate the role ingroup commitment plays in morality judgments. We found that people are indeed driven by their ingroup interests in judging what is morally right or wrong. However, this is especially true when they are defensive about their group identities,” the researchers said.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“We need to investigate if the same effects will be observed in moral judgments of liberal targets since two of the four studies we conducted involved conservative targets. Moreover, because we mainly focused on morally ambiguous actions, we should examine reactions to blatantly immoral behavior in the future,” Bocian said.
“We believe that our work might help understand why populist leaders successfully use morality to advance their political agenda,” he added. “For example, populists argue that they have a moral mandate coming from people, which they allegedly use to serve the national interest. Thus, they can say any morally ambiguous political or economic decision to be moral or immoral depending on whether it is presented as serving ingroup interests.”
The study, “Moral tribalism: Moral judgments of actions supporting ingroup interests depend on collective narcissism“, was authored by Konrad Bocian, Aleksandra Cichocka, and Bogdan Wojciszke.