How Big Is Your Halo? A Guest Post

David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, blogged here earlier this week about his research on moral hypocrisy. This is his second of three posts on the subject.

In Monday’s post, I discussed the phenomenon of moral hypocrisy. Simply put, most of us judge moral transgressions committed by others more harshly than the same transgression committed by ourselves, even though at an intuitive level we are equally disturbed by our own wrongdoing. Given this, the question becomes: Which response is more optimal?

Are we better off trying to fool ourselves and others by engaging in some “rational” justification for our own transgressions, or would it be better to heed our intuitive (i.e., gut) responses? The answer, at least to me, is: It depends.

I know, you’re thinking “cop-out!” But before you start posting on my apparent equivocation, consider the following.

Humans must successfully manage many different social pressures. Two of the more important ones are to be viewed as a fair and honest partner and to be a loyal supporter of those comprising your group (who, historically, usually constitute your most frequent trading partners). Applying these motives, it suggests a competition between impulses to be fair across the board and to appear more “moral” to and supportive of those with whom we most frequently interact.

Put simply, if we never feel any guilt at cheating the other guy, no one will ever see us as fair. However, sometimes it may be beneficial to excuse our own actions (or those of close associates) in order to maintain the aura of moral superiority while still taking advantage of an opportunity to gain resources, whether doing so directly through our own actions or indirectly through the actions of members of our ingroup.

This view of competing processes fits well with the data that I presented on Monday, but we’re missing one important part. If Valdesolo and I are right about the social nature of hypocrisy, then we should see some flexibility in the size of “moral halos.”

Now, I’m sure it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone to suggest that groups characterized by long-standing conflict might disagree about what constitutes moral behavior. But we felt the social nature of hypocrisy might go much deeper — that is, it might reflect a fundamental bias in the mind.

To test this, we replicated the experiments I presented on Monday with one important change. In addition to conditions where people judged transgressions committed by themselves and anonymous others, we also included conditions in which participants and confederates wore colored wristbands denoting whether they tended to “overestimate” or “underestimate” occurrences of mundane events. In reality, the “estimation test” used to classify people was bogus and wristbands were randomly assigned. Nonetheless, this simple assignment into novel, virtually meaningless groups was enough to stretch the bounds of moral leniency.

As you’ll see in the figure, hypocrisy readily emerged; individuals judged their own transgressions to be fairer than those of others — unless that other just happened to be wearing the same color wristband. In that case, he or she was just as angelic as the self. Thus, moral halos stretch to include those “like us” and thereby reveal morality’s sensitivity to social needs. We want to be seen as good partners and to assist others close to us in being seen as the same, but if we cheat or condemn “those other guys” now and again, it can serve both our economic and reputational interests — providing we can excuse it away.


So, my answer of “it depends” may not be that much of a cop-out after all. Remember, the mind wasn’t designed to be perfect, just to have systems that often work well enough to balance competing pressures. Still, it appears that our intuitions, or “feelings,” may represent our “better angels.” On Friday, I’ll be back with a discussion focusing on moral sentiments, how they impact cooperation, and maybe even provide a mechanism for the evolutionarily intriguing notion of upstream reciprocity (i.e., “paying it forward”).

steve long

Desteno writes:

"Remember, the mind wasn’t designed to be perfect, just to have systems that often work well enough to balance competing pressures."

More Pop Evolution. The mind was NOT designed, period. And, no, it does NOT balance "competing pressures." Humans are learners. With enough information, they can learn when it pays to be good and when it pays to be bad -- just like your dog does. And it's so much easier to be bad if you can associate with others who are getting away with it. The idea that this has some kind of a "intuitive" economic justification is pathetic.

The subject matter that Desteno is really dealing with here is the problem every single moral system faces -- what is the objective of being moral?

What is your expectation of the result of being moral? What will come of it? Is it that you can think of yourself as a good person? Or others think of you as a good person? Or that God or karma will reward you? Or at least not punish you? And what happens when you are not good?

Or, looking at it as many people do, is morality just a practical social consideration that may not apply if the right opportunity comes along?

Obviously, if you base your morality on whether another person is part of your group or not, you have some consequence or other in mind for thinking that. Something good WILL happen if you take that position.

A Nazi Christian who found it moral to eradicate Jews probably must have thought there was some positive consequence coming out of eradicating Jews. Nothing rational. It was just a intuition or feeling he had. And one he could share.

Or as Desteno writes:

---Still, it appears that our intuitions, or “feelings,” may represent our “better angels.”

I'd suggest Desteno and the rest of the new pop evolutionary psychologists get hold of a copy of Thomas Aquinas as soon as possible, just to consider the very old idea that human rationality

is not just a better moral guide than intuition or feelings, it is actually the only basis of morality.

If we can't explain what morality is, then we are in big trouble. We could end up like those economists who somehow have the feeling that it's okay for people to suffer want and deprivation while others live in luxury, and find a way to justify it, no less.

And Desteno might also consider that a certain percentage of his subjects were simply sociopaths playing to the obvious cue he gave them. The wristbands seem like a clear signal. It would not have been hard for them to get a "feeling" of the results he wanted.




What about cultural factors? Will the results be the same if you run the test in South Asia or Africa? What about people who really live in small groups (small villages or tribes), as their actions are more transparent to the group?

What is the influence of education? Do the well educated think too highly of themselves!?

Dave DeSteno

Whoa there, Steve (#12),

No one said that we follow zombie morality! Neither I or any (well, almost any) of my colleagues are arguing that rational thought isn't involved. Much of moral judgment can be explained by "clear-headed" computation. What we are saying is that the mind also comes equipped with the ability to make spontaneous evaluations as well. The ability for simulation and reasoning is clearly one of the greatest cognitive adaptations of the human mind. However, it is also evident that it is not the only type of cognitive process involved in decision-making.

And yes, the mind was not "designed" by engineers, but it was designed, much like the rest of the body, by the evolutionary chisel which sculpted its contours in response to adaptive pressures.

And, if my so many of my students were sociopaths, I'd be dead by now. Seriously, though, we always probe for suspicion, as well as give them cover stories for why they're wearing wristbands, etc.


Jason Ping

"Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue"

- Francois de La Rochefoucauld


I hope you have Erving Goffman's role theory in your lit review somewhere. He has a few things to say about the faces we put on in different social situations, and saving face was just one aspect of his model of human behavior.

Methinks everyone has a bit of hypocrisy in their lives, and the ones who denounce others for a transgression the most loudly are often guilty of the same transgression (see Larry Craig as a public example).


@Diversity- the clergy's courts also allowed women and children to be witnesses without the accused being able to demand "trial by combat," which was a bit of a deterrence in civil trials for women and children to testify against a defendant. "The Medieval Underworld" by Andrew McCall is a decent source if you're interested in this sort of thing.

Dave DeSteno

Joshua (#5),

We actually don't know what happens with load in the intergroup case. Haven't run those conditions yet. I could see it going either way. It would depend on what level group affiliation is operative.

We do know that what I'm calling gut reactions often reflect basic emotional responses. In fact, if I manipulate your emotional state at the time of judgment, it will in fact change your judgment (as it conflates your emotional response to the issue at hand with an externally manipulated one). For example, Carlo Valdesolo conducted the study I talked about on Monday and right before people made a judgment about how fair their own actions were, he had them watch a short, saddening video clip. Hypocrisy went away. That is, the negative feelings stemming from the video intensified the negative response from considering one's own violation such that it couldn't be overcome (i.e., justified away). Similar effects of emotional manipulations on moral judgment have also been found by others.


Stephen Catchpole

I would have been fascinated to see the impact of having a 'known' person who would be doing the second task vs having a 'random' person...would be treat a friend differently (i.e. flip the coin) or at least feel more guilt about it?

Dave DeSteno

Jonathan (#9),

That's exactly it. As I live in Boston (but was raised a Yankees fan in NY -- shhh), your example is one I confront every day on the T. For social psychologists, the "minimal group" manipulation of creating novel, nonsense groups is a way to have groups without existing baggage. But, what we invariably see is that the mind is very sensitive to group assignment. In this way, we can see that the bias I describe is very basic.

Black Political Analysis

I like the idea of a moral makes me understand why I defend Roger Clemens (I went to the same school as he did, Texas); "He's not guilty until they catch him!"


Isn't this a bit like how everyone on the road thinks that they are the only decent driver?

Oh sure I can talk on a cell phone, touch up my make-up, and drink a martini behind the wheel - it's these other crazies out there who are the problem.

Dave DeSteno

Point well taken, Steve.


And if you're a Yankees fan then Joba Chamberlain didn't throw at Kevin Youkilis' head this last time.

And how does the saying go? Me against my brother, my brother and me against my cousins, my cousins and me against the world? A wrist band makes you in context a form of cousin.


The medieval "Benefit of Clergy" was the right of all clergy to be tried for all offenses by the Church courts. To be convicted required a higher standard of proof than in the ordinary courts, but conviction generally resulted in a higher penalty than that faced by an ordinary convict. (I have the impression that Thomas Aquinas was one of the first to set out the logic of this.)This pattern of firmer moral expectations of the "In Group" and greater penalty for disappointing these expectations appears in many places (e.g. the Chinese Communist heirarchy). Dave DeSteno and colleagues might like to extend their work to see if it extends to wristband groups.

That said, is Prof. DeSteno setting a trap here? Surely the only people who have an interest in assessing the size of what others percieve to be one's moral halo are those who wish to change that perception; people who are probably greater than average hypocrites.



This is interesting...I have been contemplating whether to act out on my seething knowledge of my boss' infidelities. Does this make his negative actions towards me non-negotiable? Do I have the right to retaliate?

Alex B

Great article. Interesting thesis.

I think I agree with you about hypocrisy between morality of the self and others and I agree that the mind is not perfect but rather designed to survive and thrive under circumstances bred by both nature and nurture. On an individual basis if someone has a mechanical behavior that is no longer useful, say avoidance of talking to strangers, then it is applauded as healthy when they let go of those mechanisms (and become more efficiently selective in their caution). How more true then is it then when a civilization does this? It is a really exciting field to be asking question that can lead to a better humanity.

My own theory about this kind of hypocrisy would add that it is practical to think in terms of realms of control. If I find that I have done something immoral I can, in intimate detail, examine this experience afterwards and either change my behavior or find myself justified under the circumstances. If someone else exhibits immoral behavior I may not be able to treat them the way I would myself without facing an extra degree of confrontation. Therefore I throw more energy at the wrongdoings of others in anticipation of the extra confrontation that may be required to regulate them as I would myself. I may even reserve or use this extra energy at the expense of examining the circumstances of the "others" transgressions as well as I would have examined my own.

The more confrontation I have been exposed to the more I think I have to have prepared, the less I can examine the morality of others as well as myself.



Us vs. Them can be used to explain a multitude of human transgressions. The ability to disassociate yourself from someone else starts here, with sympathizing more with your own. It ends what the lack of empathy can bring the worst horrors this world has seen.

Us vs. Them has also spurred many of our greatest innovations, motivating us through competition.

How we react to Us vs Them is our greatest measure.


The above study is certainly food for thought but intuitively makes perfect sense.

The colored armband is a surrogate for a type of group, in this case and "artificial" distinction as opposed to other factors out of control (age, etc.) or within our control but not controlled for (political party, mode of dress.)

I wonder if the study was controlled for gender, race, age, or other issues such as sexual orientation, political party, and so on.

Might be interesting to see if similarly arm-banded individual's votes transcended any of the above factors, or vice versa, and what degree of power the results from any individual group may have.


How big is my Halo? 3.

Steve Long

Dave DeSteno wrote:

"And yes, the mind was not “designed” by engineers, but it was designed, much like the rest of the body, by the evolutionary chisel which sculpted its contours in response to adaptive pressures."

Dave - Let me suggest that this "design" issue is exactly what's getting us into trouble. The same environment ("adaptive pressures") that designed us designed a whole slew of organisms that make their living by deception, deceit and outright fraud.

Lying is a very effective survival strategy. We humans may well be descended or at least close cousins to organisms that pretended to be something they are not, to parasites and cannibals, to offal eaters and blood suckers.

All good successful "designs." So if we are just going by naked environmental contingencies, hypocrisy may be highly adaptive. Evolution may favor those humans who are best at fraud and deception (those who are good at not being caught at it, that is.) Something the free market types pretend not to be a factor may be the main factor.

On the other hand, having a conscience may be a case of poor "design," destined for early extinction.

I'd suggest that a lot of the evolutionary baggage we carry is immoral. And that, if anything is "designed" (denoting intentionality), it is our moral systems.

We humans have in reality "designed" an artificial, non-evolutionary environment for ourselves with ideas like morality. The fact that it is artificial does not mean it is inferior in potential survival value. Evolution is bloody in tooth and claw. It is not a very efficient process.

Perhaps we can do better. We've shown we can. Jets fly faster and higher than birds or bees.

In this sense, morality is not sourced in natural selection or our inherited, straight from the primordial muck intuitions. In this sense, human morality is counter-evolution. And in terms of our own evolution, a moral system may solve adaptive problems that natural selection never solved.