Discipline and desire: On the relative importance of willpower and purity in signaling virtue

Published on May 1, 2018in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
· DOI :10.1016/J.JESP.2018.02.007
Jonathan Z. Berman8
Estimated H-index: 8
(LBS: London Business School),
Deborah A. Small30
Estimated H-index: 30
(UPenn: University of Pennsylvania)
Abstract What does it mean to act virtuously? We examine lay perceptions of virtue, and show that different psychological drivers of virtuous behavior are relevant for different types of actions. When evaluating non-moral virtuous behavior, such as choosing to skip dessert, attributions of virtue depend on perceived willpower (i.e., the extent to which someone overcomes temptation in service of acting virtuous). In contrast, when evaluating moral virtuous behavior, such as choosing to be faithful to a spouse, attributions of virtue depend on perceived purity (i.e., the extent to which someone lacks temptation to sin and thereby does not need to exert willpower in service of acting virtuously). Study 1 demonstrates that when people describe their own actions, they associate willpower with non-moral virtuous behavior, and purity with moral virtuous behavior. Studies 2 & 3 examine judgments of others and show that as behaviors become moralized, people elevate the importance of purity relative to willpower when ascribing virtue. Finally, Study 4 examines perceptions of those who are “reformed”—having eliminated their previous sinful desires such that they no longer feel tempted. For non-moral behaviors, reformed individuals are seen as strong-willed and thus highly virtuous. However, for moral behaviors, reformed individuals are still seen as somewhat impure, and are judged to be less virtuous than those have never felt tempted by a particular vice. These results underscore how construing behaviors in moral terms shifts what people consider to be virtuous.
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