Bad to the bone or just bad behavior?

Summary: How we perceive moral goodness or moral badness, as either biological and innate traits or potentially changeable, can guide whether we are willing to be lenient over other peoples’ transgressions.

Source: Columbia University

Hannibal. Voldemort. Skeletor and Gargamel. It’s hard to imagine any nefarious villain having redeeming qualities. But what if someone were to tell you that the Joker is a monster only because he learned the behavior from people around him and it’s possible that, one day, he might change for the better?

A new study out of Columbia University suggests that the way we perceive others’ bad behavior — as either biological and innate or potentially changeable — impacts our willingness to cut them some slack.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that adults are less willing to be charitable toward “bad” individuals whose moral characteristics are attributed to an innate biological source. Conversely, adults are more apt to be generous toward individuals when led to focus on other explanations for moral “badness” that suggest potential for change. Unlike adults, children did not appear to distinguish between characters whose moral characteristics were described in different ways.

The findings may have implications for how we perceive individuals in society, such as those imprisoned for crimes.

“If people want to take something away from this study and apply it to their own lives, it is to be mindful of how they talk about others and their transgressions,” said Larisa Heiphetz, an assistant professor of psychology and the study’s principal investigator. “People often encounter moral transgressions, whether in others’ behaviors or their own. This study reveals that the way we treat those individuals can be strongly influenced by the way others describe their transgressions.”

Heiphetz’s research also revealed that a person’s “goodness” was seen by both age groups as more of a biological, innate trait than “badness.” Both children and adults were more likely to say that goodness, rather than badness, was something with which people are born and a fundamental, unchanging part of who they are.

The study, funded by Columbia University, the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy and the John Templeton Foundation, is one in a growing area of research focused on psychological essentialism — how we think about people’s characteristics in essentialist terms (e.g., innate, immutable and due to biological factors) or non-essentialist terms (socially learned, changeable). Prior work has shown that people readily attribute many human characteristics to innate, unchanging factors.

To learn how people perceive moral goodness and moral badness, Heiphetz and a group of Columbia students asked children and adults what they thought about a variety of morally good and morally bad characteristics. They found that both groups perceived “goodness” as a more central, unchanging feature of who someone is than badness, which was more likely to be perceived as something that can improve over time. That led Heiphetz to wonder if there were any consequences associated with this perception, so she gave children and adults material resources, including stickers and entries to a lottery, and told them about pairs of fictional people that had the same “bad” moral characteristics, but for different reasons: One was described in an essentialist way – born bad — and the other in a non-essentialist way — bad as a result of behavior they learned from other people in their lives.

This shows a woman
The study reveals that the way we treat those individuals can be strongly influenced by the way others describe their transgressions. The image is credited to Nicoletta Barolini/Columbia University.

When study participants were asked to share their possessions with the characters, the children shared equally but adults shared more resources with the character described as bad due to learned behavior, with the potential to change. When study participants were then told that neither of the fictional characters – whether born bad or having learned the behavior — would ever change for the better, adults still shared more resources with the character who had been described in the non-essentialist way, as having learned the behavior.

Words, as this study shows, have impact.

Larisa Heiphetz joined Columbia in 2016 after receiving her PhD from Harvard and completing her post-doc at Boston College. She has won the Early Career Research Contributions Award from the Society for Research in Child Development, as well as the International Social Cognition Network Early Career Award, and is a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation during the 2019-2020 academic year. She regularly teaches three courses for undergraduates and graduate students on social cognition, moral psychology, and applications of psychological research to everyday life.

About this neuroscience research article

Columbia University
Media Contacts:
Jessica Guenzel – Columbia University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Nicoletta Barolini/Columbia University.

Original Research: Closed access
“Moral essentialism and generosity among children and adults”. Larisa Heiphetz.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General doi:10.1037/xge0000587


Moral essentialism and generosity among children and adults

Children and adults view many characteristics in an essentialist way—as innate, immutable, and biological. Prior work has typically investigated essentialism regarding broad domains (e.g., gender rather than maleness/femaleness). Using the example of morality, the current work asked whether individuals view different components of 1 domain (goodness/badness) differently and whether such views might influence behavior. Five- to 8-year-olds reported more essentialism than adults; however, both children and adults viewed goodness in more essentialist terms than badness. Although views of morally relevant characteristics in general did not significantly predict generosity (Study 1), essentialist views of the recipient did influence generosity (Studies 2 and 3). Adults shared fewer resources than would be expected by chance with people whose badness was described in essentialist terms (and consequently more resources than would be expected by chance with people whose badness was described in nonessentialist terms), an effect that did not appear to be driven by demand characteristics and that persisted even when both descriptions explicitly noted that the character would always remain bad. Although adults reported less essentialism than children, essentialist descriptions appeared to influence their behaviors more. This work highlights the need to investigate essentialism regarding specific domain components (e.g., goodness/badness) in addition to the domain overall (e.g., morality), partially because essentialism impacts behavior differently across components. Findings also suggest that emphasizing situational factors contributing to wrongdoing and a transgressor’s ability to change may benefit people when they have committed moral violations.

Feel free to share this Psychology News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.