12 March 2019

Ethics Weighs Competence

Welcome back. I’ve a new one for you to ponder: Do we perceive unethical people as less competent? Here’s a hint: Yes.

Does unethical behavior influence
perceived competence?

(photo from multiple websites)
A report by researchers from Toronto and Stanford universities found that, while most people thought moral behavior and competence were independent, information about someone’s morality did in fact influence their judgment of the person’s competence.

Effects of Immorality on Perception
The researchers began with a pilot study that had 98 participants evaluate the job competence of a doctor, waiter and engineer based mainly on the individuals’ job preparation and performance. The participants were also advised of the individuals’ past immoral behavior (shoplifting, neglecting elderly parent, cheating on spouse) and asked if that behavior told them anything about job competence.

Although it varied with the circumstance, no less than 80% of the participants indicated that moral information was irrelevant to judgments of job competence--it would not affect their judgment.

But when comparisons with control or moral individuals were made in six follow-up studies involving 1567 participants, people were judged to be less competent if they committed hypothetical transgressions, cheated on lab tasks, acted selfishly in economic games or received low morality ratings from coworkers.

In one study, for example, 155 participants rated an individual’s job competence after learning he had either cheated or refrained from cheating to win money or after receiving no information about cheating (control).

The studies were designed to ensure insofar as possible the participants’ judgements would be based on morality and not caused by impressions of warmth or a halo effect (i.e., less well-liked individuals being perceived as worse in every way, including competence).

Effect of Social Intelligence
Of particular interest is the researchers’ hypothesis that immoral individuals are seen as less competent because their immoral actions cause them to be viewed as low in social intelligence. They defined social intelligence as how effectively one negotiates complex social relationships (interacting with people, perceiving others’ thoughts and feelings, inferring social rules and norms).

In one key study, 205 participants saw a picture of a male and were given the individual’s demographic information along with ten coworkers’ average ratings of his conscientiousness, openness and optimism. Participants were also randomly assigned to receive either high or low ratings of the individual’s morality.

To gauge the effect of social intelligence, the participants were then randomly assigned either to learn their individual was rated high on social intelligence or receive no further information.

Participants that received no information on social intelligence rated the immoral individual as significantly less competent than the moral individual. Yet participants that learned the individual was highly socially intelligent rated the immoral and moral individuals’ competence the same.

Wrap Up
Social intelligence seems to mediate the link between moral information and perceptions of competence.

Immoral individuals with high social intelligence may be perceived as highly competent; however, that competence could be in using their social intelligence abilities for their own advantage in a selfish strategic manner.

It makes you wonder how this carries over to politicians. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of morality effects on perception of competence in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-03783-001
Article on study on ScienceDaily website:
American Psychological Association press release on study:

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on www.warrensnotice.com.

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