That’s Immoral (Unless It’s Happening to an Outgroup Member): Moral Foundations, Political Identity, and Reactions to News Media
Moral foundations theory (MFT; Graham et al., 2013) proposes that moral judgments are intuitions that developed over the course of human evolutionary history, largely falling along five discrete foundations: authority, loyalty, care, fairness, and purity. MFT has been applied to media research by the model of intuitive morality and exemplars (MIME), which delineates how innate moral intuitions guide selection and evaluation of media content (Tamborini, 2011). However, neither MFT nor MIME delineate the role of group membership in moral judgments, despite research on social identity theory suggesting hostile outgroup members fall outside the boundaries of moral judgment (e.g., Deutsch, 2006; Haslam, 2006). The present research examines MFT in the context of moral violations between Democrats and Republicans. A quasi-experiment was performed using a volunteer sample recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of five news stories depicting moral violations in Congress: a Democrat attacking the authority of a higher-ranking Democrat, a Democrat attacking the authority of a higher-ranking Republican, and Republican attacking the authority of a higher-ranking Democrat, a Republican attacking the authority of a higher-ranking Republican, or a neutral condition in which the political party of the two politicians was not specified. While MFT suggests that the type of moral violation (i.e., whether it is an authority, loyalty, care, fairness, or purity violation) should determine participants’ reaction to the moral violation, results largely corroborate a social identity perspective. Participants were not critical of ingroup members who committed authority violations against outgroup members, even when the participant reported caring heavily about authority violations generally. Additionally, participants were highly critical of outgroup members who committed authority violations against ingroup members, even when the participant reported not caring heavily about authority violations generally. Moreover, even though participants only saw news stories depicting violations of the authority and loyalty foundations, results showed significant differences in ratings of a moral transgressor’s care, fairness, and purity based on their status as an ingroup or outgroup member. Results suggest that group identity plays an important role in evaluating moral violations, often trumping individuals’ innate weightings of the five moral foundations outlined by MFT.