Sometimes, the immoral can be likeable, says Yale study

According to new research, disapproval of qualities associated with immorality such as dishonesty, infidelity, and selfishness is conditional.
A man stroking his chin with devil horns drawn in chalk behind his head.


People tend to dislike immorality in others, but they make exceptions, a new Yale University study has found.

Disapproval of qualities associated with immorality such as dishonesty, sexual infidelity, mercilessness, and selfishness is conditional and not universal as some have argued, according to the research published Jan. 8 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a 1968 study of 555 personal traits, people ranked liars and phonies as the most detestable individuals, even lower than those who are murderous, malicious, and cruel. “We wanted to know if this always holds true, or whether there are contexts when people see phoniness as a good thing,” said Yale psychologist David E. Melnikoff. He and co-author April H. Bailey found one: Subjects asked to hire a spy viewed an untrustworthy one more positively than a trustworthy spy, despite regarding the untrustworthy spy as more immoral.

The survey results held true for other traits associated with immorality. People in general agreed that sexual infidelity is more immoral than sexual fidelity, but uncommitted men did not evaluate sexual infidelity more negatively. Almost everybody agreed that being merciless is more immoral than being merciful, but people evaluated a merciless juror more positively than a merciful juror. The researchers found that people’s preference for altruism over selfishness is conditional as well.

We all know of some immoral people who are well liked, but we tend to assume that these people are not considered immoral by their admirers — or if they are, that they possess other compensating qualities,” Bailey said.

However, the findings suggest that, in certain contexts, people are liked precisely because they are considered immoral, the authors say.

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