Tipultech logo

Social cognitive conceptions of moral identity

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009) showed that individuals tend to act more cooperatively and morally--donating profits of their company to support charities, for example--after they attempt to recall the 10 commandments. In contrast, some factors, such as financial incentives, tend to curb cooperative and moral behavior, often inducing dishonesty instead.

Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009) formulated a social cognitive model of moral identity to accommodate these findings as well as many other significant patterns of observations. This model comprises the following set of premises:

Key assumptions

Centrality of moral identity

According to Aquino and Reed (2002), the centrality of moral identity varies across individuals. Specifically, over their life, individuals form a knowledge structure, called moral identity (Aquino, Reed, Stewart, & Shapiro, 2005), which represent their motives to behave morally as well as the goals they form and the actions they undertake to fulfill these motives.

For some individuals, this moral identity is central to their self concept. This identity might be central because they often allude to their cooperative demeanor. Alternatively, this identity might be central because their friends often allude to the importance of moral behavior. Regardless, the extent to which moral identity is central varies across individuals.

Indeed, Aquino and Reed (2002) developed and validated a measure that gauges the extent to which moral identity is central. In short, individuals first read an excerpt about a moral person. Next, they specify the degree to which they would like to emulate these traits.

Specifically, a series of nine characteristics, representing lay descriptions of a moral prototype, is presented& these descriptions include caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest, and kind. Participants strive to imagine how a person that exhibits these traits would think, feel, and act. This task ensures that individuals envisage the epitome of a moral person.

Finally, participants answer a series of five questions, designed to assess the extent to which they strive to emulate this person. Typical questions include "It would make me feel good to be a person who has these characteristics" and "I strongly desire to have these characteristics". Internal alpha consistency approximates .90 (Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, & Felps, 2009).

According to Aquino and Reed (2002), these nine descriptions activate a network of concepts that relate to morality. Psychometric properties are also acceptable: test retest reliability is elevated and the factor structure is stable (Aquino & Reed, 2002). Furthermore, when the centrality of moral identity is elevated, individuals are more inclined to associate moral traits with the self, as gauged by the implicit association test). In addition, if centrality of moral identity is high, individuals are more incline to describe themselves as moral in response to the question "Who am I?" (see Freeman & Aquino, 2008) as well as are more inclined to donate (Aquino & Reed, 2002& Reed & Aquino, 2003).

The accessibility of moral identity: Antecedents

According to Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009), individuals tend to act morally whenever their moral identity is accessible. Specifically, as a variety of theories imply (see cognitive dissonance theory and self verification theory), individuals like to perceive themselves as consistent. They prefer to deflect or to resolve any contradictions in their behavior and personality. Accordingly, if their moral identity is accessible and salient, they tend to act morally and cooperatively--primarily to maintain this consistency (Blasi, 1980, 1993, 2004). If their moral identity is not as accessible, they do not feel the urge to behave as morally.

Two factors determine whether moral identity is accessible. First, moral identity, if central to the self concept of individuals, is more likely to be accessible (cf., Higgins & Brendl, 1995). Second, cues in the environment that revolve around morality will also amplify the accessibility of this identity. As Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009) showed, for example, attempts to enumerate the 10 commandments augmented the accessibility of moral identity. Likewise, exposure to incidental references to morality, such as words that are synonymous with cooperation and compassion, also increase the accessibility of this identity.

To measure accessibility, participants rank five identities, such as "a moral person", "a successful person", "a family member", "an independent person", and "a student", from most to least reflective of themselves. If "moral person" is ranked as high, the moral identity is regarded as accessible (e.g., Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, & Felps, 2009).

Several cues can amplify the accessibility of moral identity. As Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009) demonstrated, moral identity was more accessible in participants who had been asked to recall the 10 commandments compared to participants who had been asked to life the five largest cities in the United States. In contrast, the prospect of financial incentives diminished the centrality of moral values. As circumplex models of values and goals tend to imply (e.g., Grouzet, Kasser, Ahuvia, Dols, Kim, Lau, et al., 2005& Schwarz, 1992, 1994& Schwarz & Boehnke, 2004), egocentric, agentic motives tend to inhibit communal, cooperative motives-and thus might diminish the accessibility of moral identity. Finally, merely copying a series of words that are synonymous with morality, such as compassion and caring, was sufficient to increase the accessibility of moral identity.

Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009) maintained, and then showed, that either the centrality of moral identity or cues that relate to morality are sufficient to reinforce the accessibility of this identity. Accordingly, the effect of these cues, such as recounting the 10 commandments, is more pronounced when morality identity is not central. These cues are not necessary if moral identity is already central.

The accessibility of moral identity: Consequences

When accessibility of moral identity is elevated, individuals tend to act more cooperatively rather than duplicitously. As Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, and Felps (2009) showed, when moral identity was accessible, participants were more inclined to donate money to a cause. In particular, they were asked to imagine they were a brand manager, operating for a breakfast cereal company. If moral identity was accessible, individuals were more willing to donate 25c to a special fund, developed to support cancer, each time a product was purchased.

Furthermore, when moral identity was accessible, individuals were also more inclined to lie during a negotiation (e.g., Aquino, Freeman, Reed, Lim, & Felps, 2009). That is, in this study, participants assumed the role of a manager attempting to negotiate a salary with a prospective employee. They were informed the position will be discontinued in 6 months--a possibility that was concealed from the employee who preferred a two year contract. When moral identity was inaccessible, participants were more willing to lie to employees, implying the contract was indefinite.

Related theories and findings

Many other theories are similar to this social cognitive conception of moral identity. For example, Bandura (1986, 1999) also maintained that individuals sometimes disengage from their moral responsibilities, called moral disengagement.

Anonymity and darkness

When individuals feel anonymous, their moral schemas may not be as central& moral behavior dissipates. As a consequence, conditions that instill a sense of anonymity can elicit immoral or deceptive acts.

To illustrate, a dim or dark ambience has been shown to provoke unethical behavior. In one study, reported by Zhong, Bohns, and Gino (2010), participants completed a numerical task. Matrices of numbers were presented. Participants needed to identify pairs of numbers that sum to 10. For each answer, they earned 50 cents. The participants themselves specified the number of answers they uncovered. Unbeknownst to these individuals, the researchers identified the number of answers that were actually unearthed.

Participants completed this task either in a dim or light room. If the room was dim, participants were more likely to exaggerate the number of answers they uncovered (Zhong, Bohns, & Gino, 2010).

In a subsequent study, participants completed a version of the dictator game. They were granted $6 and told to distribute a certain amount to someone else. They completed the task either wearing or not wearing sunglasses. If participants wore sunglasses, they were more likely to retain most of the $6 for themselves& they acted unfairly (Zhong, Bohns, & Gino, 2010).

Presumably, when individuals wear sunglasses, the ambience seems dim. Individuals associate a dim ambience with a sense of anonymity--even if they are not actually anonymous.

The final study was similar, except participants also completed a measure of perceived anonymity. They answered questions like "My choice went unnoticed during the study" and "Others were paying attention to my behavior during the study". Sunglasses were associated with perceived anonymity, which in turn promoted unfair behavior (Zhong, Bohns, & Gino, 2010).

Moral centrality and obsessive compulsive disorder

According to some researchers, when morality is particularly central to the identity of individuals, obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD becomes more likely. OCD entails both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unpleasant and intrusive thoughts, images, and impulses that often revolve around concerns like contamination, religion, self doubt, aggression, and sexual activity, such as worries about killing your children. Compulsions are overt actions or covert thoughts that are initiated deliberately and repeatedly, usually in response to obsessions, as a means to alleviate negative feelings.

Research indicates that centrality of moral goals is correlated with severity of OCD symptoms (Doron, Kyrios, & Moulding, 2007& Doron, Kyrios, Moulding, & Nedeljkovic, 2008). That is, individuals with OCD tend to perceive morality--that is, behaving honourably, ethically, and appropriately--as more important than many other domains, such as health, status, wealth, comfort, and achievement.

Because of the centrality of moral goals, these individuals are likely to be very sensitive to information about morality. They orient their attention to the moral dimension of behaviours. If they engage in a contest, for example, they are more concerned about whether they behaved appropriately than whether they triumphed.

Similarly, individuals with OCD are especially sensitive to deviations from their moral goals (cf. Reynolds, 2008). In particular, they set very lofty moral goals: They feel they must behave morally in all circumstances to a significant extent. As a consequence of this sensitivity, individuals might perceive themselves as moral one moment and then immoral the next moment, in the aftermath of a trivial event or thought. Their evaluations of their moral standing are thus erratic, ambivalent, and uncertain (Bhar & Kyrios, 2007). Furthermore, because of the importance of these moral goals, they feel especially distressed when they fail to reach these unrealistic standards.

Because of this sensitivity, when these individuals experience any doubts, concerns, or anxieties, they assume they have violated some moral code. Thus, intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses, although fleeting in most people, are very conspicuous in people who are especially concerned about morality. If they experience a fleeting thought about killing someone, they feel intense shame.

Compulsive behaviors represent an attempt to redress these deviations. For example, washing is often associated with purity or trust. Excessive washing, therefore, can activate schemas associated with purity, curbing the guilt these individuals feel after violating their lofty moral goals.


Aquino, K. (1998). The effects of ethical climate and the availability of alternatives on the use of deception during negotiation. International Journal of Conflict Management, 9, 195-217.

Aquino, K., Freeman, D., Reed, A., Lim, V. K. G., & Felps, W. (2009). Testing a social-cognitive model of moral behavior: The interactive influence of situations and moral identity centrality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 123-141.

Aquino, K., & Reed, A., II. (2002). The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1423-1440.

Aquino, K., Reed, A. II, Stewart, M., & Shapiro, D. (2005). Self-regulatory identity theory and reactions toward fairness enhancing organizational policies. In S. W. Gilliland, D. D. Steiner, D. P. Skarlicki, & K. Van den Bos (Eds.), What motivates fairness in organizations? Research in social issues in management (pp. 129-148). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Aquino, K., Reed, A., II, Thau, S., & Freeman, D. (2007). A grotesque and dark beauty: How the self-importance of moral identity and mechanisms of moral disengagement influence cognitive and emotional reactions to war. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 43, 385-392.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the preparation of inhumanities. Personal and Social Psychology Review, 3, 193-209.

Bhar, S., & Kyrios, M. (2007). An investigation of self-ambivalence in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1845-1857.

Blasi, A. (1980). Bridging moral cognition and moral action: A critical review of the literature. Psychological Bulletin, 88, 1-45.

Blasi, A. (1984). Moral identity: Its role in moral functioning. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Morality, moral behavior and moral development (pp. 128-139). New York: Wiley.

Blasi, A. (1993). The development of identity: Some implications for moral functioning. In G. G. Noam, T. E. Wren, G. Nunner-Winkler, & W. Edelstein (Eds.), The moral self (pp. 99-122). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Blasi, A. (2004). Moral functioning: Moral understanding and personality. In D. K. Lapsley & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral development, self, and identity (pp. 335-348). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Blasi, A. (2005). Moral character: A psychological approach. In D. K. Lapsley & F. C. Power (Eds.), Character psychology and character education (pp. 67-100). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Detert, J. R.,& Trevino, L. K. (2008). Moral disengagement in ethical decision making: A study of antecedents and outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 374-391.

Doron, G., Kyrios, M., & Moulding, R. (2007). Sensitive domains of self-concept in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Further evidence for a multidimensional model of OCD. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, 433-444.

Doron, G., Kyrios, M., Moulding, R., & Nedeljkovic, M. (2008). Sensitivity of self beliefs in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety and Depression, 25, 874-884.

Grouzet, F. M. E., Kasser, T., Ahuvia, A., Dols, J. M. F., Kim, Y., Lau, S., et al. (2005). The structure of goal contents across 15 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 800-816.

Higgins, E. T. (1989). Knowledge accessibility and activation: Subjectivity and suffering from unconscious sources. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought (pp. 75-123). New York: Guilford Press.

Higgins, E. T. (1996). The "self digest": Self-knowledge serving self-regulatory functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1062-1083.

Higgins, E. T., & Brendl, C. M. (1995). Accessibility and applicability: Some "activation rules" influencing judgment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31, 218-243.

Hyde, L. W., Shaw, D. S., & Moilanen, K. L. (2010). Developmental precursors of moral disengagement and the role of moral disengagement in the development of antisocial behaviour. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 197-209.

Jackson, L. E., & Gaertner, L. (2010). Mechanisms of moral disengagement and their differential use by right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation in support of war. Aggressive Behavior, 36, 238-250.

Reynolds, S. J. (2008). Moral attentiveness: who pays attention to the moral aspects of life? Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1027-1041.

Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theory and empirical tests in 20 countries. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 1-65). New York: Academic Press.

Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50, 19-45.

Schwartz, S. H., & Boehnke, K. (2004). Evaluating the structure of human values with confirmatory factor analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 230-255.

Zhong, C., Bohns, V. K., & Gino, F. (2010). Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior. Psychological Science, 21311-314.

Academic Scholar?
Join our team of writers.
Write a new opinion article,
a new Psyhclopedia article review
or update a current article.
Get recognition for it.

Last Update: 6/30/2016