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The Illusion of Moral Superiority

Tappan & McKay, 2016

Social psychologist have identified a positive illusory bias in most people that they see themselves as better than others. This sense of "moral superiority" is dangerous when a conflict arises between groups, each of which sees itself as superior to the other.

In a 2016 paper, Tappan & McKay invited a sample of 270 adults (153 male; Mean age = 37.8 (SD = 11.8)) to rate themselves individually vs. "the average" person on a range of positive and negative traits as well as the desirability of each trait on a 7-point scale. Here are the findings about morality:
Tappan & McKay Morality
Notice that on all of the positive traits, the participants rated themselves as higher than the "average person" and, conversely, on all the negative traits, they rated themselves lower than the "average person". But, also notice that the individuals rated themselves much closer to the desirable value than they did the average person. (Note, that the same pattern was seen on traits involving "agency" (e.g., being hard working, creative, intelligent) but not involving "sociability" (e.g., cooperative, warm, family-oriented).

The researchers argue that "The irrationality of moral superiority was borne out of the ubiquity [being everywhere] of virtue—almost everyone reported a strong positive moral self-image—and individuals’ ignorance of this ubiquity when making judgments of the average person...given the substantial degrees of freedom in what constitutes moral behavior (Alicke & Govorun, 2005; Graham et al., 2016), it seems probable that claims of positive moral character are equally legitimate (or illegitimate) for a large majority of people...A fallacy thus arises when individuals do not apply to others the same degrees of freedom they invoke in their moral evaluation of themselves." (p. 7) THE SELF-SERVING BIAS IN A DIFFERENT FORM!


Tappin, B. M., & McKay, R. T. (2016). The illusion of moral superiority. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550616673878