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The Importance of Being Moral

It will make you liked and respected, though perhaps not understood.

Anna Hartley, who earned her Ph. D. in social and personality psychology at Brown University, has studied the impact of morality, competence, and sociability on different types of evaluative judgments made in everyday life. This is important stuff to know if you want to be a good and successful person, or at least be perceived as such.

Imagine your daughter Bethany brings home her new boyfriend, Brad, for you to meet. What would be the qualities that would make you feel that Brad is a good person? If you could know just two or three qualities about Brad, what are the traits that would be most informative to understanding what Brad is like as a person? Would you want to know that he’s intelligent and outgoing? Or that he’s honest, compassionate, and kind?

As it turns out, morality is the thing we care about most when forming impressions of a person (see Goodwin, Piazza, & Rozin, 2014). We care about a person’s morality more so than nearly any other factor, including their competence, sociability (friendliness), and a variety of other personality traits. Morality is a potent factor when it comes to evaluating others on a global level.

We know less about whether morality is as important when forming more specific types of evaluations. For example, evaluating whether we like or respect someone are two forms of evaluation that we make frequently in everyday life. For example, do I respect my new co-worker who constantly “borrows” my pens but doesn’t give them back? (Err, no.) Do I like my neighbor who brought me brownies when I first moved in? (Yes. I do.)

Liking and respect are distinct forms of evaluation. Liking reflects personal interest and attraction toward a person, whereas respecting reflects high regard and deference to a person. People are often liked for their communal traits, such as being cooperative and friendly, whereas they are respected for their agentic traits, such as being competent and accomplished. It’s unknown whether morality is more important to liking or respect.

Another equally important, yet distinct form of evaluation is understanding a person. What makes me feel that I truly understand who you are as a person? Some research in this area has shown that we see morality as central to identity: Your morality is what makes you you (Strohminger & Nichols, 2014).

But little is known about morality’s relative importance to liking, respect, and understanding. Morality may be central to all three, or it may be more important to one form of evaluation than another. For example, perhaps morality is especially important when deciding whether we respect a person, but less important whether we respect or understand a person.

Morality on the whole is important, but which moral traits are most important? For example, honesty, purity, and generosity are all elements of morality, but are they all equal in their importance to evaluation? Sometimes honesty can be undesirable, such as the person who is unflinchingly honest even at the cost of feelings (No, I did not need you to tell me my new haircut looks bad). Sometimes we find people who are extremely wholesome and sincere to be insufferable goody two shoes.

My colleagues and I examined these questions through two fundamentally different tasks in this article. In one task, we had participants rate real people and their personality traits (morality, competence, sociability). In the second task, we had participants rate a variety of personality traits and their relationship to people. We used two fundamentally different tasks to examine our research questions in order to see whether the results would replicate. Replication is good.

Morality is central to liking, respecting, and understanding people. What did we find? Morality was central to evaluation. When deciding whether we like, respect, and understand a person, we care most about whether that person is moral, more so than whether he or she is sociable or competent. However, morality was equally important to liking and respecting a person, yet relatively less important to understanding a person. It may be that understanding someone is more complex than liking and respecting, and is affected by a wider variety of personality, behavioral, or relational qualities. It’s also possible that people simply do not agree on what it takes to understand someone (e.g., I care about morality, but you care more about competence when trying to understand someone).

Which moral traits do we care about? Second, not all moral traits were equally important. Across many traits, honesty, compassion, fairness, and generosity were most important to liking, respecting, and understanding. Other moral traits, such as purity and wholesomeness, were seen as less important; even less than certain competent traits (e.g., intelligence, articulate).

I find it informative (and fun) to review Table 1 in the article and examine some of the traits that are uncharacteristic of someone liked and respected: needy, defensive, indecisive, lazy, and cheap. A lesson for the next time you go to dinner with friends: proactively offer a suggestion of a place to go, be able to get there independently, and don’t be stingy when the bill comes. And if someone questions your restaurant choice, for god’s sake, don’t be defensive about it.

Why is a person’s morality so important to us? You may be wondering at this point why morality is so important when judging others. Our results show that we consider moral traits so important in others, in part, because a person’s morality can benefit us in some way. Moral traits have social value. If I know a person is honest and compassionate, then I know that I can associate with that person safely, and can perhaps begin a fruitful relationship with them. From an adaptive perspective, moral traits signal to us whether we should approach or avoid and whether we should affiliate with that person. Affiliating with moral people can increase our fitness.

Clearly, morality is important in the interpersonal domain, but it would be interesting to know how morality factors in when evaluating companies or political candidates. Recalling the Volkswagen emissions scandal, consumers perhaps care about a company’s morality quite deeply, but for different reasons than for why they care about an acquaintance’s morality. And how does morality factor into citizens' perceptions of the presumptive presidential nominees in 2016? I’ll leave that for a political scientist or sociologist to examine.

Anna Hartley is a Research Scientist at Amazon in Seattle.


Goodwin, G. P., Piazza, J., & Rozin, P. (2014). Moral character predominates in person perception and evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 148-168.

Hartley, A. G., Furr, R. M., Helzer, E. G., Jayawickreme, E., Velasquez, K. R., & Fleeson, W. (2016). Morality’s Centrality to Liking, Respecting, and Understanding Others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, online first. doi: 10.1177/1948550616655359.

Strohminger, N., & Nichols, S. (2014). The essential moral self. Cognition, 131, 159–171.

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