Who's More Morally Righteous Than You? (No, We're Not Talking About Them)

We all know them.  You know, those blowhards who tell you their kids clean their rooms, or eat anything you put in front of them.  Or wash the car after they use it (I'm still waiting for that).  Or the politician (we won't name him) who won't have a meal with a female not his wife.

But now new research, according to newswise.com, finds that this "holier than thou" or self-righteous behavior really isn't -- big duh! -- the mark of truly "good" people.

Studies in the past discovered that people "tend to believe that they are more likely than others to donate blood, give to charity, treat another person fairly, and give up one’s own seat in a crowded bus for a pregnant woman." And usually, if you followed them onto that bus, they won't.

Even more astonishing, a widely cited U.S. News and World Report survey asked 1,000 Americans to indicate the likelihood that they and a long list of celebrities would go to heaven. The vast majority of respondents believed they were more likely to go to heaven than any of these celebrities, including the selfless nun Mother Teresa.


However, a new study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business asks whether the extensive research on self-righteousness overlooks an important ambiguity: When people say they are more moral than others, do they mean they are more like a saint than others or less like a sinner? In other words, do people chronically believe they are “holier” than others or “less evil” than them?

Researchers Nicholas Epley and Nadav Klein conducted four experiments that explored how people judge themselves compared to other people in a variety of contexts, newswise.com reports. All of the experiments revealed that self-righteousness is asymmetric, reflecting the asym-metry that people do not believe they are more moral than others but rather less evil than them.

Say what?

Participants believed that they are less evil than others, but no more moral than them. Specifically, participants were less likely to make negative character inferences from their own unethical behavior than from others’ unethical behavior, believed they would feel worse after an unethical action than others would, and believed they were less capable of extreme unethical behavior compared to others. 

In contrast, these self–other differences were much weaker in evaluations of ethical actions.

Now who do you think could learn from this?  (I'm not pointing fingers but it's big and white and people who like to lie a lot -- or tend to twist ethics, if they even know what they are -- live there.)

One of the causes of asymmetric self-righteousness is that “people evaluate them-selves by adopting an ‘inside perspective’ focused heavily on evaluations of mental states such as intentions and motives, but evaluate others based on an ‘outside perspective’ that focuses on observed behavior for which intentions and motives are then inferred,” the researchers say. Accordingly, the researchers find that people who are more likely to ascribe cynical motives to their own behavior exhibit a smaller asymmetry in self-righteousness.
Looking at you, residents of that big white house.
The researchers note that it remains to be seen whether bounded self-righteousness looks the same around the world. Basic moral norms of kindness and respect for others seem to be fairly universal sentiments, but future research will be needed to determine how culture-specific contexts could modify people’s tendency to feel moral superiority.
“In countries where corruption is more common, the asymmetry in self-righteousness might be more pronounced because people will be more likely to observe unethical behavior committed by other people,” they report.
So how, or why, do you practice ethical behavior when others don't?  To me, it's simple.  You have to live with yourself.


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