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Institutions and Morality

Final Report Summary - MORALITY (Institutions and Morality)

The objective of the project was to enhance our understanding of moral decision making. In particular, the goal was to investigate the extent to which moral behavior is malleable and what factors contribute to its malleability. The key question thus was why “ordinary” people endowed with a given moral conception engage in behaviors they would generally object to. In a series of papers, I show how the tendency to act moral or immoral crucially depends on institutions, organizations, and contexts.

I show that interactions in groups can lead to a diffusion of responsibility: Acting in groups provides an excuse for acting immorally simply because an individual may perceive himself as not or only partly responsible for an outcome. As a consequence, immoral outcomes are more likely to occur when a group decides compared to when each member decides individually. Markets, where sellers and buyers interact and can trade items, can similarly be responsible for immoral outcomes. I show that market interaction increases the likelihood of moral transgression relative to individual decision-making. These effects, however, are heterogeneous, meaning that not all individuals react in the same way. For example, intelligence partly counteracts the moral-eroding effects of markets.

Further results show that moral behavior does depend on social context. Individuals will act more morally when other individuals observe them, and this increase is more profound, the more choices they are making while being observed by others. Moral behavior also depends on the timing of when the outcomes actually materialize. For example, individuals act more morally when the costs and rewards of moral action are delayed. The interplay of benefits/costs to self/other and the timing of actions/outcomes, however, is quite complicated.

One of the ultimate questions regarding the malleability of moral behavior is how moral behavior develops over the lifetime. I show that children already at the age of 7 to 9 show differences in moral behavior. Further, the extent to which children behave morally at this young age depends crucially on the social environment. In particular, I show that socioeconomic status (SES), as well as the intensity of mother-child interaction and mothers’ prosocial attitudes, are related to children’s prosociality. Importantly, an intervention in the form of a randomly assigned variation of the social environment yields a substantial and persistent increase in prosociality. This is the first study ever showing a causal effect of the environment on prosocial behaviour. Moreover, the enrichment of the social environment due to the intervention closes the prosociality gap between low- and high-SES children. It is, therefore, possible to improve the development of moral decision making through childhood interventions.

I also developed an economic theory of moral behavior, building on the notion of utilitarianism, deontological reasoning and the role of image concerns. The model explains a huge set of empirical regularities and formally introduces the role for narratives and imperatives. Narratives are arguments that provide reasons for acting (im)morally. Individuals produce and circulate such narratives to justify their actions. For example, by downplaying the effect actions have on others, exculpatory narratives allow individuals to portray themselves (to themselves or to others) as acting morally, when in fact acting selfishly. The paper explores the dissemination and spreading of narratives in networks, and the role of imperatives to behave morally.