Imagine you’re out shopping when you see a stranger pick up a smartphone, put it in his pocket, and walk out of the store without paying. Then, as you’re leaving the store, a police officer stops and asks if you know anything about the crime.  What do you do? Do you tell the officer what you saw, or do you look the other way?

Now imagine yourself in the same scenario but with a twist: rather than a stranger stealing the smartphone, it’s your best friend.   Now what do you do?  Do you respond any differently?

The tension you feel when answering these hypotheticals highlight two fundamental tendencies that, at times, meet at loggerheads—justice (the inclination to punish people who break the rules or commit immoral acts) and loyalty (the obligation to favor and protect people we are close to).

What happens when these motives collide head-on, what influences our decision-making in these dilemmas, and how can we alter our behavior? 

Over the course of 10 experiments, my colleagues and I set out to explore these questions. 

First, we asked research participants different versions of the same hypothetical question I asked you above. We wrote different versions of each situation that the participants read and responded to. In some versions, the perpetrator was someone close to the participant, and in some versions the perpetrator was a stranger. In addition, some of the situations involved serious offenses such as blackmail or assault, and some of them involved less serious offenses such as illegally downloading music or harassment.  

The findings were consistent: participants indicated that they would protect relationship partners more than strangers, and this discrepancy increased with the severity of the crime. The more serious the crime, the more people reacted differently based on whether the perpetrator was a friend or stranger.

Next, we were interested in why people morally compromise themselves, such as by lying, in order to protect people close to them from being punished.  What we found was both interesting and surprising.  

Going in, we considered two possibilities.  First, we thought that people might perceive immoral acts committed by friends and family members as less severe than the same acts committed by acquaintances and strangers. In other words, maybe people are less honest about what their friend did because they don’t see the behavior as being as bad as if the same action was committed by a stranger.

Our second idea was that, rather than perceiving the situations differently, people are motivated to deal with them differently because they have a personal stake in situations that involve people close to them. In other words, maybe people are less honest about what their friend did because they believed that honesty was bad not only for their friend, it was bad for them as well.

We tested these competing hypotheses by asking participants to explain the reasoning behind their decisions. Their responses supported the second hypothesis. When thinking about their close relationship partners committing immoral acts, people believed that it was in both their and their partner’s best interests to lie about what they witnessed. In addition, they justified their lying by saying that they would punish the perpetrator themselves. So they knew very well that the person had done something wrong; they just were willing to lie about it to an authority figure.

Next, we found a simple little hack that made people more likely to be honest about their friend’s seriously immoral behaviors. If we asked people to put some distance between themselves and the situation by thinking about it in the third person (using their own name) instead of the first person (using I and me), participants were more likely to tell the truth about what their friend did. We think that using third-person versus first-person language while contemplating these emotionally charged situations helped participants reason about the situation from a more objective perspective.   

Now it’s your turn. Let’s return to the thought experiment that I started with. A police officer is asking you if you witnessed your friend stealing a smartphone. Knowing what you now know, would you respond any differently than you did before?

For Further Reading

Weidman, A.C., Sowden, W.J., Berg, M., & Kross, E. (2020). Punish or protect? How close relationships shape responses to moral violations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(5), 693-708.

Grossman, I. & Kross, E. (2014). Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self-distancing eliminates the self-other asymmetry in wise reasoning about close relationships in younger and older adults. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1571-1580.

Hildreth, J.A. & Anderson, C. (2018). Does loyalty trump honesty? Moral judgments of loyalty-driven deceit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 79, 87-94.

Waytz, A., Dungan, J., & Young, L. (2013). The whistleblower’s dilemma and the fairness-loyalty tradeoff. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 1027-1033.

Walter J. Sowden is a Research Psychologist in the U.S. Army currently stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. The research described here is based on the work he and his colleagues, Aaron Weidman and Martha Berg, conducted while he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan working under the guidance of Ethan Kross.