Thesis Literature review (Ch.2): SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY OF MORALITY

2011/03/01 § 4 Comments


Introduction: Ethics and morale in a Business context and the effect of honor codes






4.2.1 Moral awareness and judgment
Apparently, different individuals take different decisions in relation to ethical issues. Social cognitive theory attempts to explain the basis of these differences (Reynolds 2008). The postulate of social cognitive theory is that moral decision is based on the traits of the individual, external stimuli, and the ensuing interaction of the two factors (Bandura 1986).

In accordance to social cognitive theory the difference in moral behaviour derives from a variation in attention to moral issue between individuals. The attention is influenced by the significance of the stimulus, how interesting the stimulus is, and the individual’s capacity to recognize and process the stimulus (Taylor 1991).

The basis of moral reasoning is moral judgment that derives from the questions “What is right and wrong?” and the concept of the self, as discussed above (Reynolds and Ceranic 2007). Ethical behaviour starts with a moral judgement based on the awareness of a moral issue, the intention to act morally, and finally the engagement in the appropriate behaviour (Kohlberg 1975).

The judgment of what is right and wrong is crucial in moral behaviour, and is influenced by two main factors, namely development of moral reasoning, which is explained in more details below (Kohlberg 1984; Hunt 1992; Green and Weber 1997; Abdolmohammadi and Sultan 2002; Greenberg 2002; Bernardi, Metzger et al. 2004), and ethical predisposition, which is defined as a cognitive framework that builds the basis for moral decisions (Brady and Wheeler 1996). Moral judgment is a process that is a process that in principles happens every time anew a moral decision has to be taken (Reynolds and Ceranic 2007).

4.2.2 Influencing moral awareness using psychological priming
Some studies have suggested that these factors are subject to priming, i.e. the activation of specific connectional frameworks by subliminal suggestion (Higgins 1989). Priming can for example act by having subjects sort phrases, or unscramble sentences, that are enriched with suggestive terms, for instance words that are associated with the term “mean”. By subconsciously directing attention towards the framework for judging actions as “mean” individuals can be influenced to judge vignettes as meaner than control subjects that have performed unscrambling task with no inbuilt bias (Skowronski John, Sedikides et al. 2010).

Other categories that have been addressed using priming are, racial categories (Devine 1989), gender stereotypes (McKenzie-Mohr and Zanna 1990), political advertisements (Shen 2004), anxiety (Robles, Smith et al. 1987), and violent crimes (James 1986), to name but a few examples of the wide array of possible applications.

4.2.3 Moral attentiveness, moral identity, and social consensus
Some authors distinguish moral awareness, that can be influenced by priming, from moral attentiveness, and define attentiveness as a more general sensitivity to moral topics that exists regardless of context (Jones 1991; Reynolds 2008). Moral attentiveness can be associated with a more intuitive moral reaction while awareness implies deliberation. Perceptual aspects play a role in moral attentiveness, which let an individual colour the information encountered, and a reflective aspect which lets the individual examine the experience (Reynolds 2008).

This is an intricate part of the moral identity of an individual which deals with moral aspects of one’s self (Bergman 2002). The moral identity acts as a motivator to behave in accordance to moral sets of rules that an individual has come to accept as basis for his own behaviour (Marc H. Bornstein 1999; Narvaez and Lapsley 2009).

“Social consensus indicates the extend to which there is a general concurrence within society about the moral status of the issue” (Reynolds and Ceranic 2007). Reynolds and others have argued that a high social consensus reduces the need for moral judgment of an individual, so that the behaviour of the individual is going to be influenced by his moral identity but not the moral judgment (Reynolds and Ceranic 2007).

4.2.4 Stages of moral development
As pointed out above, moral development is a key component in the decision process on moral behaviour (Kohlberg 1984; Hunt 1992; Green and Weber 1997; Abdolmohammadi and Sultan 2002; Greenberg 2002; Bernardi, Metzger et al. 2004). Kohlberg’s conventional level of moral development are a well accepted basis to describe the stages of such a development (Kohlberg 1984; Wikipedia 2011).

The model has- disregarding intermediate levels sometimes applied- three levels, composed of six developmental stages, each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor (Wikipedia 2011).

The pre-conventional level consists of two stages that could be described as “punishment avoidance” and “benefit seeking”. The conventional, or second level, consist of the stages “social conformity” and “authority acceptance”. The third, or post-conventional level consists of the stages “social contract shaping” and “ethical principles orientation” (Kohlberg 1984).

Figure 1: Kohlberg’s model of moral development (Source: Wikipedia)

The stages describe the progression from a mostly egoistic and self-interested moral perspective, over the acceptance that social norms should be followed for a efficient social existence, to the realization of higher principles, such as ethical principles and social contracts. The final stage is composed of independent intellectual abstraction, and based on complex concepts and such as human rights, liberty and justice. It also incorporates basic principles, such as majority decision and minority protection (Kohlberg 1984).

The basic principles of this model apparently hold true for different cultures, although this circumstance is a matter of some debate (Boom, Wouters et al. 2007; Gibbs, Basinger et al. 2007).

A similar model, that in contrast to Kohlberg’s model does not concentrate so much on social development, but rather emphasizes infant development is Jean Piaget’s developmental stage theory (Carpendale Jeremy 2000).

Some studies have provided evidence that the stages do correlate with actual behaviour. Employees who had attained Kohlberg’s conventional level of moral development refrained from stealing money when they worked in an office that had an ethics program in place. Those on the other hand at the pre-conventional level of development and who worked at an office without an ethics program stole from their employers. Apparently the programs in place improved the moral development of the employees (Greenberg 2002).

Previous chapter: Thesis Literature Review: PSYCHOLOGICAL BASIS OF MORALITY



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Higgins, E. T. (1989). “Continuities and Discontinuities in Self-Regulatory and Self-Evaluative Processes: A Developmental Theory Relating Self and Affect.” Journal of Personality 57(2): 407-444.
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Robles, R., R. Smith, et al. (1987). “Influence of Subliminal Visual Images on the Experience of Anxiety.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 13(3): 399-410.
Shen, F. (2004). “Chronic Accessibility and Individual Cognitions: Examining the Effects of Message Frames in Political Advertisements.” Journal of Communication 54(1): 123-137.
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