Cheating and moral certainty go hand in hand

Cheating and moral certainty go hand in hand November 28, 2007

Some people – those with a strong “moral identity” – are much more certain of their own righteousness than others. And yet, somehow, a strong moral identity just doesn’t seem to map to moral behaviour. In fact, moral failures among people who set themselves up as moral leaders are a staple of the news media: the politician who preaches against corruption but has his hand in the till, the religious leader caught in flagrante.

Of course, it might just be that people in the public eye are more likely to be caught out (or be reported). But two new studies from Scott Reynolds and Tara Ceranic at the University of Washington have now shown that the link is real – people with strong moral conviction really are more likely to engage in morally dubious behaviours.

“Moral identity seems to be more motivational in nature than ‘moral’ in nature,” Reynolds says. “Managers and organizations should not just assume that a moral identity will necessarily translate into moral behaviors.”

The studies were questionnaire-based surveys of attitudes among 230 students and 290 managers. In the first, they found that the people who were most likely to condone cheating were those who had both a strong moral identity and also felt that cheating could sometimes be justified. Those who felt cheating could sometimes be justified but had weak moral convictions were less likely to condone it.

As the NBC says:

The results recall the seeming disconnect between the words and actions of folks like televangelist and fraud convict Jim Bakker or admitted meth-buyer Ted Haggard, former president of the National Evangelical Association, an umbrella group representing some 45,000 churches.

The second study showed that managers with a strong moral identity were more likely to be either very tough or very lenient on their employees – whereas those with a weaker moral identity were more likely to choose options in the middle.

“The principle we uncovered is that when faced with a moral decision, those with a strong moral identity choose their fate (for good or for bad) and then the moral identity drives them to pursue that fate to the extreme,” said researcher Scott Reynolds of the University of Washington Business School in Seattle. “So it makes sense that this principle would help explain what makes the greatest of saints and the foulest of hypocrites.”

NB: Pharyngula has a round-up of recent religious cheats.


  • Press Release
  • Reynolds SJ, Ceranic TL.The effects of moral judgment and moral identity on moral behavior: An empirical examination of the moral individual. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2007 Nov Vol 92(6) 1610-1624.

Browse Our Archives