Bad guys suffer less (social pain): Moral status influences judgements of others’ social suffering

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Abstract

Research on pain judgement has shown that several features of a target influence empathy for others’ pain. Considering the pivotal role of morality in social judgement, we investigated whether judgements of others’ social and physical suffering vary as a function of the target's moral status. Study 1 manipulated the moral characteristics of an unknown other and found that participants ascribed less social (but not physical) suffering to a target depicted as lacking moral status rather than to a target high in morality. Study 2 added a control condition in which no information about the target's moral qualities was provided, and showed that the effect of morality on social pain judgements was driven by the depiction of the target as lacking moral traits. Study 3 revealed the specific role of morality, as information on another evaluative dimension (i.e., competence) had no effects on pain judgements. Study 4 showed that social targets perceived as lacking moral qualities are thought to experience less social pain than highly moral targets because of their perceived lower level of humanity. Overall, our findings suggest that social (but not physical) pain might represent a capacity that is denied to social targets that are perceived low in morality.

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