When Deciding How To Improve Our Personalities, Moral Character Is Not A Priority

By Emily Reynolds

No matter how high your self-confidence, it’s likely that you have certain traits you’d change given the opportunity: maybe you’d turn down your anxiety, feel more outgoing in company, or be a bit less lazy. One 2016 study found that 78% of people wanted to better embody at least one of the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, emotional stability, conscientiousness, agreeableness, or openness to experience), so the desire to change who you are is not uncommon.

But are we so keen to change how moral we are? That is, how concerned are we really about being a good or bad person? A new study published in Psychological Science suggests that we’d rather spend time improving those parts of us that aren’t morally relevant, with traits like honesty, compassion and fairness taking a back seat.

Jessie Sun from the University of California, Davis, and Geoffrey Goodwin from the University of Pennsylvania asked two groups comprising a total of 800 participants to fill in an online survey, in which they self-reported their personality traits. The first set of questions was based on the Big Five personality domains, while the second looked at moral traits, with questions measuring general morality as well as honesty, fairness, loyalty and purity. Participants also indicated how much they wanted to change on each of these personality and moral traits, responding to statements like “I want to be helpful and unselfish with others”, for example.

Participants also nominated four “informants” who knew them well. These informants rated their friend’s traits and reported what changes they’d like to see in the friend’s personality and moral character. Informants also selected the top three changes they’d like to see in their friend.

Participants most wanted to change their non-moral personality traits, particularly those relating to negative emotions: they wanted to reduce anxiety, depression, emotional volatility and anger. Creativity, productivity and sociability were the most desired traits, while moral traits such as honesty, loyalty and fairness took a back seat. And, overall, participants showed a weaker desire to change moral traits than non-morally relevant personality traits.

This preference was even more striking when the researchers considered the top three desired changes for each participant. In one of the groups, 48% of participants reported that becoming less anxious was one of their top three priorities, with 44% wanting to become less depressed. Desire for increased sociability and productivity, and reduced emotional volatility, also commonly made it to the top. But moral improvements were not prioritised: a desire to become more compassionate made the top three goals of just 9% of participants, and only 3% counted a goal to become more generally moral among their top priorities.

A similar pattern also emerged across the participants’ “informants”, who also expressed very little desire to change their friends’ moral traits and were likely to select goals that closely matched those picked by participants . The informants also wanted their friends to change less than the participants did themselves.

This pattern of results didn’t just come about because participants already saw themselves as particularly moral, the researchers argue. Instead, some of it may be down to self-interest: we’re more motivated to change in ways that improve our own sense of well-being, in other words. Being less depressed has an obvious and immediate impact on our lives; being “more moral” does not come with such straightforward benefits.

Although self-interest doesn’t sound like a particularly noble motivator, the fact that friends also seemed to prioritise the participants’ personal well-being is somewhat more cheering. The friends seemed to choose desired changes not by how “good” or “bad” they were likely to make the target, but by how likely they were to make their life better or happier.

Previous research has also suggested a supreme confidence in our own moral superiority: we frequently believe we are more honest and trustworthy than others. In some cases, this may be true. But we could also benefit from thinking harder about our possession of these qualities when it’s time for self-improvement.

Do People Want to Be More Moral?

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

3 thoughts on “When Deciding How To Improve Our Personalities, Moral Character Is Not A Priority”

  1. Um…

    From the paper:

    “We recruited two samples of target participants (“targets”) from the undergraduate
    psychology research pools at the University of Pennsylvania (Sample 1) and the University of
    California, Davis (Sample 2).”

    In both samples the females outnumbered the males considerably, as did the ‘informants’. Arguably the research is a finding about two similar networks of connections of limited scope.

    So while the paper is interesting far more work and broader samples are needed to make the findings worthy of generalization.

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  2. It’s been my priority since about age 18, shortly after being personally dishonored by an immoral person, but I don’t think this reaction to that inevitable life experience is common… And the thing is, people of low moral character will enforce this group norm, and try to drag even the best of us down with them, constantly.

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