Morality isn’t fixed but changes around close relationships

Research from MindCORE postdoc Daniel Yudkin found that the importance people place on certain moral values shifts depending on who is around in a given moment.

A group of four people leaning against a wall. The one farthest on the left is wearing a bag diagonal across the chest and holding papers. The second from left has on a purse. The second from right has on a backpack and is holding a blue spiral notebook. The person all the way on the right is pointing to the others and holds a folded piece of white paper and a writing utensil.
The people around in a given moment—friends versus acquaintances, for instance—affect the importance morals take on for someone, according to new research published in Nature Communications.

Morality may seem immutable. But new research from the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere reveals that a person’s morals and values change depending on who is nearby.

“We often think about morality as fixed,” says postdoctoral fellow Daniel Yudkin, a social scientist in the Social and Behavioral Science Initiative of Penn’s MindCORE. “But we find that just being in the presence of someone you feel close to is enough to impact the importance people give to certain moral values.”

Yudkin, with colleagues from Brooklyn College, Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, and Universitat Ramon Llull (URL) in Spain, published the findings in Nature Communications. It’s the culmination of a nearly decade-long investigation into how social context affects what people care about, broadly, and their values, specifically.

Early studies

The work began in 2013, when Yudkin was a doctoral student at New York University and Jordi Quoidbach, now of URL was at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Quoidbach oversaw the creation of a smartphone app intended to solicit a sampling of feedback from people carrying out their daily activities. At fixed points during the day, the app asked more than 1,100 participants who they were with and how crucial they felt it was to act loyally, respect authority, and follow through on a host of other value-driven behaviors.

A person standing outside wearing a light-blue button down shirt, with blurred trees in the background.
Daniel Yudkin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Social and Behavioral Science Initiative of MindCORE, situated within the School of Arts & Sciences. He is also a visiting scholar at the Wharton School. (Image: Courtesy Daniel Yudkin)

Analyzing the data, the researchers quickly saw that morals took on greater importance when people were with others compared to when they were alone. That importance increased even further in the context of close relationships.

“Philosophers have long considered morality to be the social glue that helps guide people’s behaviors, so it makes sense,” Yudkin says. “Despite that, it wasn’t something we had necessarily expected to find.” The revelation led to three additional studies aimed at trying to better understand the nature of this phenomenon.

In the initial experiment, the research team had defined “closeness” based on ratings from a group separate from those answering the app questions. In the second study, this one computer-based, the researchers asked 2,000 people to do both: answer survey questions about the importance of various moral values, plus indicate how close they felt to whomever they were with.

“That allowed us to test, from both a separate sample and from participants themselves, the relationship between closeness and moral values,” Yudkin says.

In the lab

To this point, the work had consisted of participants answering questions from afar. But Yudkin and colleagues felt it important to add a randomized lab study to the mix.

In a laboratory setting, 390 Philadelphia-based college undergraduates were randomly assigned to an “alone” or “partner” condition. Those in the partner condition sat facing each other at desks, each with a computer. Partners first took turns asking each other a series of increasingly personal questions, from “What is a food you enjoy?” to “What is one of your greatest fears?” This allowed the experimenters to increase the sense of interpersonal closeness between partners who would otherwise have been previously unacquainted.

Partway through, all participants responded by computer to a set of questions about closeness and morals. Controlling for political ideology and other factors, the researchers then tested the data for the same patterns they had observed in earlier work, finding that partners who rated each other as “close” also rated certain moral values as more important.

Finally, the researchers conducted a series of smaller studies. “We asked people to imagine sitting on a bench next to someone they do or don’t feel close to. How important would certain values be?” Yudkin says. “Even just in this imagination exercise, values like loyalty and respecting authority were activated in people’s minds.”

Such “binding values” help govern behavior in close groups, as opposed to “individualizing values,” which promote personal rights and freedoms. The findings—that binding values are more activated around close others—show how certain morals are more important than others for shaping people’s behavior in close relationships.

Research implications

“This research has a number of interesting implications,” Yudkin says. “The first has to do with how people’s morality operates in their own minds.” At an individual level, morals can fluctuate based on environmental or situational cues.

Yudkin offers a fictional anecdote to explain: A law-abiding husband who is most often driven to act fairly learns that his wife has committed a horrible crime. In the moment, feeling a sense of loyalty, he helps her hide evidence, despite the act violating several of his universal morality principles. In this instance, the relationship’s closeness leads loyalty to trump fairness.

More broadly, Yudkin says the work shows just how great an influence the people around us can have on our priorities, values, and behavior.

“Even things we think are fixed in our minds, things we might have assumed are just immoveable aspects of our psychology, can easily shift depending on who we’re with,” he says. “We’ve been sitting home alone for the past 12 months, and now we’re suddenly reentering society. We should expect to experience radical changes in what we care about, such as our emotions and values.”

Daniel Yudkin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Social and Behavioral Science Initiative of MindCORE, the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for the integrative study of the mind, situated within the School of Arts & Sciences. He is also a visiting scholar at the Wharton School.

Other contributors to the research include Ana P. Gantman of Brooklyn College, Wilhelm Hofmann of Ruhr-University Bochum, and Jordi Quoidbach of Universitat Ramon Llull.

Funding for this research came from the Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad, Gobierno de España (Grant RYC-2016-21020).