Money and Morality: Lack of Resources May Lead to Harsher Moral Judgments

Material resources, specifically income, have a sustaining impact on our lives. They dictate fundamental aspects of life, like where we live, and more peripheral aspects, such as whether we can go to the office happy hour.

But research reveals that material resources can also influence how we judge other people.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, suggest that individuals with lower incomes are more likely to issue harsher judgments of harmful behavior, like lying or physically attacking someone. Global factors, like the economy, as well as individual factors, such as mood, influence this effect.

Using the 2009 World Values Survey, researchers Marko Pitesa of Grenoble École de Management and Stefan Thau of INSEAD examined data regarding individual’s moral judgments, income, and inflation. Their analyses revealed that a lack of material resources and economic inflation were both associated with harsher moral judgments. Additionally, the effect of inflation on moral judgment was stronger for participants whose income was significantly below the average.

In a second experimental study, participants indicated their monthly earnings on one of two scales – the researchers varied the endpoint of the scales as a way of altering participants’ perceptions of their actual resources. Some participants marked their income on a scale with an endpoint of “over $500,000” per month, priming the perception that they lacked material resources. Others were primed to perceive themselves as flush with resources, marking their income on a scale with an endpoint of “over $500” per month.

As predicted, participants who perceived themselves as lacking in material resources made harsher judgments of harmful behavior, like physical assault. Notably, perceived material resources did not seem to affect participants’ judgments of nonharmful behaviors, like public indecency.

The data suggest that a perceived sense of vulnerability may, at least in part, account for the link between material resources and moral judgments.

Pitesa and Thau note that previous studies have shown that material resources may help cushion people who are victims of harmful behavior, like theft. People who don’t have such resources are, therefore, more vulnerable to the damaging effects of harmful behaviors, and may be willing to issue harsher moral judgments as way of “reducing the (relatively greater) threat of others’ harmful behavior.”

Thus, coming down hard on wrongdoers may be a protective mechanism for people who feel vulnerable due to a lack material resources, shielding them from potential harm.

The findings seem particularly timely as wealth disparities within countries continue to grow at the same that national economies are struggling to recover from the worldwide recession.

“Considering the pervasive importance of material resources in everyday life, we believe that a systematic theoretical approach to understanding the social psychological effects of material-resource availability presents a promising and potentially powerful explanation for important social phenomena,” Pitesa and Thau argue, with implications for domains as varied as “judicial outcomes, political disagreement, and social conflict.”
Pitesa, M., & Thau, S. (2014). A lack of material resources causes harsher moral judgments. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797613514092

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