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Morality, secret to popularity

A new study suggests it’s less important to be friendly than to be good.

Whether people are good turns out to be more important to our relationships than whether they’re friendly or fun.
Whether people are good turns out to be more important to our relationships than whether they’re friendly or fun.-

What makes people like you? Are there particular qualities that make you the kind of person your friends want to go on a road trip with, or call with exciting or sad news, or ask to water their plants? Is it that you’re fun, friendly, hilarious, and always up for a good time? Or that you’re fair, responsible, honest, and wise? Which qualities really count?

Researchers have argued for years that we bundle nearly all personal traits into two categories—those of warmth and competence—and that the things that make us like other people are mostly about warmth. But new findings are suggesting there is something distinct from either category that is actually more important: morality. While psychologists have generally considered morality to fall under the heading of warmth, new research is suggesting that we consider it separately. Whether people are good turns out to be more important to our relationships than whether they’re friendly or fun—and it’s also more important to who we think they really are.


In the first of seven experiments for a paper now in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Geoffrey Goodwin, Jared Piazza, and Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania asked subjects to rate 170 traits on how useful they were for judging several higher-level aspects of people’s personalities, including morality and warmth. Goodwin says that the investigation emerged from “thinking about what really counted as a central moral trait.”

As it turned out, how much a particular trait had to do with warmth accounted for only a fraction of how closely it was tied to morality, suggesting the two categories are related but separate. This might not sound surprising to laypeople, but if it holds up, it will mark a change in how psychologists think about social perception. The experiment produced a list of traits considered highly related to morality but not warmth (courageous, fair, principled, responsible, and honest), warmth but not morality (sociable, happy, agreeable, funny, and playful), or both (humble, grateful, empathetic, cooperative, and kind).

In the experiments that followed, the researchers found that moral traits are considered more fundamental to identity than warmth traits. They also more strongly predict global impressions—how positively or negatively people are viewed overall.


Surely, however, it matters whom we’re judging, right? Obviously, we value different traits in different people, based on the roles they play in our lives. You don’t really care about your tax accountant’s ability to lighten up a party. So, in one experiment, subjects considered a dozen social roles, such as close friend, social acquaintance, surgeon, co-worker, and so forth.

For all but three roles, participants said they significantly preferred a moral person over a warm one. And the more important they rated the role, the greater the importance of moral character. The only exceptions were cashier, acquaintance, and distant relative, for whom morality had no premium. And for all roles but one, the subjects appreciated someone described purely as moral just as much as someone described as both moral and warm. (The one exception in this case was a judge. Adding warmth to morality actually lowered his rating.)

In the final experiment, the researchers created a real-world test of their hypothesis, presenting subjects with 235 “notable deaths” obituaries from The New York Times. The subjects’ overall impressions of the deceased were swayed more by what the obits said about moral character than by what they said about warmth.

The researchers believe we value morality over warmth because it’s a better predictor of whether someone will help or harm you. “Friendliness can be quite disingenuous,” Goodwin says. “It can conceal darker motives.”

The study is joined by other recent work suggesting that morality may be more important to our roles in the world than we realize. At the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Nina Strohminger of Duke University presented several studies, conducted with Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona, that suggest our very identity is more dependent on moral traits than on other qualities. In one study, a man named Jim is in a car accident, after which he loses one of the following: his ability to recognize objects, his desires, his autobiographical memories, or his moral conscience. What led subjects to deem Jim least like himself was a missing moral compass—even more so than not remembering who he was.


The new findings raise real implications about how we present ourselves. Given our usual assumption that friendliness means likability, Goodwin says, people might feel pressure to produce extroverted displays to achieve social success—but “perhaps that’s less important than people think.” In other words, you’ll earn more points for staying after a party to clean up than for being the one to creatively make the mess. But appearing moral is harder than appearing warm—you have to be moral. “To convince someone that you are fair you actually have to engage in certain behaviors that require much from you,” Piazza says. “You can’t just fake it.”

Strohminger says her results have made her friends “think more about their own relationships and what they really value.” When you’re choosing a friend or romantic partner, in the beginning you might pay attention to whether they share the same interests or how funny or good-looking they are. But moral traits, she says, are “actually what ends up making the relationship last, because those are the ones that you’re ultimately keyed into.”


As a friend of mine who’s had some health problems recently posted on her Facebook wall: “It’s pretty easy to be fun. It’s a lot more impressive when a person is fun and reliable. Summer of Physical Catastrophe has really made me appreciate my battle-tested friends.”

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist living in New York City and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”