Do you aspire to be a good person? Most people would probably say yes—believing you are a good, honest, fair, and virtuous person allows you to see yourself in a positive light. To be a good person, most people try to act morally, abiding by laws and following social norms. When immorality does occur, we tend to harshly judge transgressors for violating our deeply held moral values. However, if we ourselves engage in immoral actions, we tend to reinterpret the events or surrounding circumstances to justify our own bad behavior, therefore avoiding damage to our moral self-image.

The people we surround ourselves with also impact our views of our moral self, and we therefore tend to include people in our innermost circle whom we believe are good and moral as well. But what happens when the people we care most about—our romantic partner, friends, or family members—behave badly? Do we follow the same pattern of responses that we do for the self and rationalize their bad behavior? Or do we feel especially threatened by their bad actions in such a way that we judge them even more harshly than we typically would?

When Loved Ones Misbehave

So, we studied how people respond when the ones they love misbehave, examining judgments of the transgressor, the act, and the self. Participants read about hypothetical wrongdoings (for example, spreading a false rumor about a coworker whom they did not like) done by a close other or a stranger. Responses were more lenient, judging the transgressor as less immoral and experiencing less anger towards them, when the transgressor was a loved one compared to a stranger. At the same time, participants took on some of the burden of the close other’s misbehavior, experiencing more shame, guilt, and embarrassment in response to their close other’s bad actions compared to a stranger’s.

Results were much the same in our next study where participants recalled past experiences of witnessing misbehavior of close others compared to strangers.

In our third study, participants reported on and responded to unethical events they witnessed in their daily lives every day over the course of 15 days. There was more leniency towards close others following the unethical act, judging them as less immoral, experiencing less anger towards them, and reporting even lower desires to punish them, compared to strangers.

Lastly, we brought participants into the laboratory in pairs—either romantic partners, friends, or strangers—and examined how they would respond to learning about a novel immoral behavior their close other or a stranger ostensibly admitted to. Again, we found a similar effect of leniency towards loved ones, yet feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment when those loved ones misbehaved.

In our research, we also found that people viewed close others’ unethical actions as more ethical than that of strangers, even for the exact same bad acts, such as plagiarizing on a university essay.  

This works highlights the importance of social context in moral perception. Who a bad actor is, beyond what they do, impacts how we respond to bad behavior. We judge close transgressors leniently, but at the same time, feel worse about ourselves.

Are We Living Too Much Of A Double Standard?

Do we lean over too far for close others? Close others committed approximately half the acts in our study examining unethical behavior in daily life. If we protect our close others—judging them more leniently and viewing the unethical behavior as less wrong—a large number of moral transgressions likely go unchecked by precisely the people who are in a position to regulate them, at the risk of normalizing immorality in our society.

For Further Reading

Forbes, R. C., & Stellar, J. E. (2021). When the ones we love misbehave: Exploring moral processes within intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Schein, C. (2020). The importance of context in moral judgments. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(2), 207-215.

Rachel Forbes is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include how social context impacts how we perceive unethical behavior.

Jennifer Stellar is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include self-transcendent emotions and moral perceptions.