Most people are adamant: They would never do it. Ever. Never deliberately inflict pain on another person, just to obtain information. Ever artificially inflate the value of some financial product, just to take advantage of others’ ignorance. Certainly never, ever become a deadbeat and accept a government bailout.
They speak only for themselves, of course. As for others, well, turn on the news: shady bankers, savage interrogators and deadbeats are everywhere.
“I remember thinking that I was just better than other people, that I would never compromise my principles,” said Jordan LaBouff, 25, a graduate student in Texas, recalling a public standoff that he and other students had with university administrators several years ago.
“Well, they gave me this award — the administration did — and I’d sworn I would never take anything from them. But of course there I was, up on stage accepting it.
In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes — to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.
But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own. Culture, religious belief and experience all help shape a person’s sense of moral standing in relation to others, psychologists say, and new research is helping to clarify when such feelings of superiority are helpful and when they are self-defeating.
“The message in this work is not that you should rid yourself of moral indignation; sometimes that’s appropriate,” said David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “But the point is that many types of behavior are driven far more by the situation than by the force of personality. What someone else did in that situation is a very strong warning about what you yourself would do.” [...]