People see own good but gossip about others’ misdeeds

Cellphone surveys probe gap between personal virtue and negative chatter

stealing from backpack

YOUR BAD  Cellphone surveys suggest people focus on their own good behavior but gossip mainly about others’ transgressions, such as stealing someone else’s property.


People’s moral lives revolve around keeping track of their own good deeds and gossiping about others’ wrongdoings. That’s the conclusion of a study appearing in the Sept. 12 Science, in which 1,252 U.S. and Canadian volunteers responded to surveys on their cellphones at five random times daily over three consecutive days.

In line with laboratory studies, participants reported committing moral acts more often than immoral acts, say psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Cologne, Germany, and his colleagues. The same individuals were more than twice as likely to learn from others about someone else’s dodgy actions as they were to hear about virtuous behavior.

Volunteers who reported being on the receiving end of a good deed more often did good for someone else later in the day, perhaps “paying it forward.” But those who committed a moral act showed an uptick in bad acts later the same day, possibly because doing good made them feel entitled to indiscretion.

Experiences with a moral dimension, whether positive or negative, occurred surprisingly frequently, the researchers say. Participants described a moral or immoral event from within the past hour in nearly 29 percent of 13,240 cellphone reports. Instances of caring for someone else far outnumbered those of hurting someone else. Otherwise, reports of immoral acts reigned. For instance, accounts of unfairness and dishonesty outweighed those of fairness and honesty. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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