This Weird Factor Affects Who You Trust

In contrast to the advice doled out by career-finding websites and baby boomers nationwide, there's more to making a good impression than eye contact and a firm handshake: According to recent research, your moral judgments may affect your popularity with other people. A study from Oxford and Cornell Universities, published earlier this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that people who hold to a black-and-white standard of morality — that is, they believe in moral absolutes — tend to be seen as more trustworthy than those who see the world in shades of grey.

To measure attitudes toward morality, psychologists presented over 2,000 participants with variations on classic moral dilemmas like the Trolley Problem, which asks people to choose whether or not to save one innocent life at the expense of many others. The choices presented in these dilemmas fell into two categories: Rule-based and cost/benefit. The rule-based judgment holds to more intuitive moral rules — for instance, refusing to kill one person to save others, or respecting someone's dying wishes. Cost/benefit judgments, on the other hand, go with the choice that favors the greater good, even at the expense of others.

In the study, researchers asked participants how they viewed people based on their moral judgments, and the results were clear: People who held to moral absolutes, aka those who made rule-based judgments, were seen as more trustworthy, and participants generally preferred them as potential social partners.

It's not exactly a shocker, but here's where things get interesting: Some people were seen as trustworthy even though they made a choice to actively kill someone. One of the moral dilemmas presented in the study was the Soldier's Dilemma, in which the leader of a band of soldiers has to decide whether to kill one of his men before he's captured by enemies. In one variation, the soldier begs the leader not to kill him; in another, the soldier asks the leader to stab him to avoid being tortured to death.

Although you'd think that the "trustworthy" option would be to let the soldier live, people actually found the decision to respect the soldier's wishes more important than the act of murder. In the study, participants preferred individuals who acted out the soldier's dying wish, whether it was killing him or letting him live. According to researchers, respecting individual choices appears to be more important than following the rules exactly. Furthermore, participants also emphasized how the decision was made; people who struggled with the decision were seen as trustworthy even if they ended up making the cost/benefit choice.

"We appear to like people who stick to these intuitive moral rules — not because they are sticklers for the letter of the law, but because the rules themselves tend to emphasize the absolute importance of respecting the wishes and desires of others," professor David Pizarro said, according to Science Daily.

On the other hand, this isn't to say all moral relativists are seen as untrustworthy jerks (although some people are certainly more Machiavellian than others). Moral dilemmas are great for philosophical debates, but they don't necessarily reflect real life. Besides, if everyone hated the morally grey, Loki would be a far less popular character, and that's a world nobody wants to live in.

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