MANHATTAN, KAN. -- There are a lot of terrible things that people do to one another. A husband kills his pregnant wife and unborn child. A woman kills another woman she met on the Internet and kidnaps an 8-month fetus she cut from its mother's womb.
At the same time, there are a lot of minor moral and legal violations that people engage in as well -- violations such as speeding, cheating on tests, etc. But what factors influence a person's willingness to engage in various minor moral and legal violations? A lack of conscience? The thrill and excitement of the risk involved? A Kansas State University professor who has previously examined social-emotional behaviors in children and adults, has completed a study examining these dynamics.
Mark Barnett, a K-State professor of psychology, queried 178 K-State undergraduates on 40 different "minor moral and legal violations." Some of the violations the students were asked about on the questionnaire were illegal infractions; some were immoral but not illegal.
"Some of these behaviors would get you in trouble with the law -- like speeding down the highway, and others were like cheating on an exam or cheating on a game of golf," Barnett said. "You're not going to get arrested for the latter behaviors, but still, obviously it's not morally acceptable to do those sorts of things."
Barnett said some of the violations on the questionnaires had a human victim; others did not. He found that the participants were more likely to engage in violations that didn't hurt a human victim , such as taking towels from a hotel, rather than ones where there was an identifiable human victim.
"You could park in a no-parking zone and there's no clear human victim for that," Barnett said, "but you could also park in a handicapped zone and you could imagine that being harmful to someone who needs that space and has a disability."
One factor associated with the likelihood of engaging in a particular minor violation, Barnett said, was the belief that many other individuals tend to engage in the violation, such as speeding 1 to 4 miles per hour over the limit.
"How common the violation was perceived to be was important; similarly, how serious a violation was perceived to be influenced their own behavior," Barnett said. "The violations they thought were not that serious were the ones they said they were more likely to engage in."
Risk taking played a role as well.
"Perhaps high risk takers aren't focusing on getting caught, but it's the excitement associated with taking a risk that is important," Barnett said. "For them, the concern over getting caught may not be as critical. There are a lot of things that you and I might consider doing and you and I might say 'I'm not going to do it because it's dangerous.' So the danger becomes important for you and me. But for people who are high risk takers, they may just go ahead and do it for the thrill or excitement; whatever motivates them. Perhaps they're not as concerned with getting caught or the danger associated with the behavior as individuals who are less likely to take risks."
One finding surprised Barnett: participants said they were more likely to do illegal behaviors than immoral behaviors that are legal. However those illegal activities were typically ones that had a low chance of being punished, such as going a few miles per hour over the speed limit.
"Driving a little over the speed limit is illegal but we inferred from the participants' answers that they didn't think it was likely that a police officer was going to stop them or that anybody was going to get punished for that behavior," Barnett said.
Study participants were also asked to estimate the percentage of female and male college students they believed would engage in these violations. Barnett said participants generally expected a higher percentage of males than females to engage in these behaviors.
"Indeed when we looked at the gender difference, males said they were more likely than females to engage in these behaviors, especially at the higher levels of some violations," Barnett said. "At the lower levels of some violations, the males and females were pretty close in their likelihood ratings, but at riskier levels of these violations the males indicated that they were much more likely than females to engage in these behaviors."
Barnett has authored more than 60 articles for professional journals and has made more than 90 presentations at regional and national conventions. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Research in Child Development and the Society for Research in Human Development. He and his students are currently working on a similar study involving fourth through sixth grade children.
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