How can you ever really know someone? Researchers at Texas A&M University found our perceived knowledge of others' "true selves" is inherently tied to perceptions of their morality.
"We found evidence consistent with a strong psychological link between morality and identity," says Andrew Christy, a researcher in Texas A&M's Department of Psychology who specializes in social and personality psychology.
For "The Reciprocal Relationship Between Perceptions of Moral Goodness and Knowledge of Others' True Selves," published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Christy and his co-authors hypothesized that people would report knowing the most about others who were portrayed as morally good. A secondary hypothesis was that this effect would work both ways, such that others who were described as being easily knowable would also be perceived as more moral than those described as being unknowable.
The researchers presented participants with texts describing a person's morality and competency, then asked them to measure how well they thought they knew the person's "true self." In another study, participants read a passage in which the author describes their roommate as either being readily knowable or almost completely unknowable. Afterwards they answered questions about their impressions of the target, including how moral vs. immoral they perceived the target to be.
The researchers found a strong psychological link between morality and identity. "We found that participants reported knowing the most about targets when they were described as moral, compared to targets described in different ways (e.g. competent)," explains Christy. "Our results also suggested that this is a bidirectional relationship -- participants perceived the knowable target as more moral than the unknowable target."
Christy says these findings show that most people operate on the default assumption that others are fundamentally good. "Thus when someone is kind to us or otherwise provides evidence of goodness, this effectively confirms our pre-existing assumptions about them and leads us to feel that we really do know them."
So when it comes to friendships and other relationships, he concludes, "people will feel most familiar with others who make morally good first impressions."
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