The Importance of Moral Character

Imagine for a moment that you won “The Moral Communities Project Dream Apartment Giveaway” contest. Your prize is a fully furnished, professionally decorated, two-bedroom apartment in the city of your choice and we will pay your rent and utilities for one year. The only catch is that you have to have a roommate who is a complete stranger. You will, however, get to choose from one of three candidates that we have pre-screened.

All we can tell you is that the three candidates share the same gender, ethnicity, political orientation, and socioeconomic background as you. They also passed the background check that we conducted. Lastly, we had the candidates fill out some personality measures and found that, while scoring similarly on all other personality dimensions, they differed in the following ways:

  • Person A scored much higher on our measure of intelligence than the other candidates.
  • Person B scored much higher on our measure of sociability than the other candidates.
  • Person C scored much higher on our measure of morality than the other candidates.

Given this information—and only this information—which person would you want as a roommate?

Who do you want as your roommate?


Sadly, The Moral Communities Project barely has the funds to maintain a website let alone pay your rent for a year (let’s hope you didn’t choose San Francisco). This thought exercise, however, highlights the influential role that three trait dimensions—intelligence, sociability, and morality—play in how we evaluate and judge other people.

We are constantly being bombarded with information about other people—friends, coworkers, members of an ethnic group we have never even met—and not all of it is useful. Susan Fiske and Amy Cuddy found evidence that information concerning the potential warmth (sociability) and competence (intelligence) have the greatest impact on the impressions we have of other people. Our sensitivity to how friendly or competent a person is makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When we encounter somebody we know nothing about, our survivability depends on our ability to answer the following questions:

  1. Does this person wish to do us harm?
  2. Does this person have to ability to do us harm?

Our perceptions of the apparent sociability and intelligence of another person help us answer these questions, respectively.

Where does morality come into the picture?

Research by Marco Brambilla, Bogdan Wojciszke, Geoffrey P. Goodwin, and others shows that morality-related information influences our impressions of others to a far greater degree than either sociability- or intelligence-related information. While Fiske and Cuddy argue that our attentiveness to the morality of others is just a component of our overall sensitivity to sociability-related information, these scholars argue that morality represents an entirely distinct dimension influencing our impressions of others.

The special attention we give to people’s moral character makes senses from an evolutionary perspective as well. How moral a person seems to be can give us greater insight into how that person will act towards us. For example, you can probably recall former partners, friends, and coworkers who were seemingly very friendly, but wound up taking advantage of you or deceiving you in some way. In such cases, details regarding the morality of a person (“Tom seemed to claim a little more credit than he deserved on that one project we worked on together a while back”) rather than how “warm” he or she seemed to be was the better predictor of that person’s intentions towards you (“Tom got a promotion off an an idea that I once shared with him over drinks”).

Getting back to our fake contest, which roommate did you choose?

  • The sociable one because he or she may be the most fun to hang out with?
  • The intelligent one because he or she might be the most interesting? (or, maybe, the roommate most likely to know how to fix the wireless router when it is acting up?)
  • Or did you pick the moral one, who may be boring and may be useless when the internet stops working but is probably the least likely to stiff you on the grocery bill or hide clean dishes in the apartment to avoid having to wash new ones? (Yes, I had a college roommate do that once. He is now an accountant.)

Regardless of who you chose, I hope that I have illustrated to you the degree to which morality shapes your social world. At the very least, I expect that you keep in the mind the following: just as you are sensitive to the moral information given off by others, they are sensitive to whatever insights you are giving off about your moral character.

References and Additional Reading

Brambilla, M., & Leach, C.W. (2014). On the importance of being moral: The distinctive role of morality in social judgments. Social Cognition, 32, 397-408.

Brambilla, M., Sacchi, S., Pagliaro, S., & Ellemers, N. (2013). Morality and intergroup relations: Threats to safety and group image predict the desire to interact with outgroup and ingroup members. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 811-821.

Ellemers, N., Pagliaro, S., Barreto, M. & Leach, C. W. (2008). Is it better to be moral than smart? The effects of morality and competence norms on the decision to work at group status improvement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1397–1410.

Fisk, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(2), 77-83.

Goodwin, G.P. (2015). Moral character in person perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 38-44.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.

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.

Wojciszke, B., Bazinska, R., & Jaworski, M. (1998). On the dominance of moral categories in impression formation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1251-1263.


Founder and administrator of the Moral Communities Project. Currently a post-doctoral researcher at IDC Herzliya.

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