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The Moral Psychology of Loyalty


Loyalty, the ultimate virtue to some and the most dangerous vice to others, has motivated men to action and shaped social relations throughout the ages. But, loyalty as a moral construct has been relatively ignored by psychologists and organizational scholars. In this dissertation I aim to show that of all the constructs related to interpersonal connectedness, loyalty is unique in that it acts as a moral principle in human psychology, and thus is an especially powerful driver of human behavior. Moreover, loyalty is unique among moral principles in having a dual aspect promoting both ethicality and fostering corruption.

I examine the effects of loyalty on unethical behavior in contexts in which there is a temptation to act unethically. Specifically, I investigate whether loyalty can prompt people to cheat less even when cheating would benefit their groups. I identify ethical salience as a mediating mechanism and competition as a moderating variable for the relationship between loyalty and ethicality. I test whether loyalty is unique among moral principles in prompting people to act both more and less ethically depending on competition and whether the loyalty prompts the loyal to judge their own unethical actions as moral. I conducted 11 studies to test loyalty’s role as a moral principle in human psychology.

In the first chapter, I provide a roadmap for this dissertation that (a) highlights how I conceive of loyalty and unethical behavior, (b) outlines the key hypotheses that will be tested, and (c) summarizes the findings from the 11 studies. In Chapter 2, I provide a theory for the moral psychology of loyalty and develop six hypotheses to be tested.

Chapters 3 thru 7 include the methods and results for the 11 studies. In Chapter 3, the first two laboratory studies (1A and 1B) find evidence that loyalty to a group can reduce cheating even when cheating would benefit the group. In Chapter 4, two field studies (2A and 2B) demonstrate that the effects of loyalty on cheating generalize to other unethical behaviors and to existing social relationships in which loyalty is an implicit or explicit expectation. In Chapter 5, two studies (3A and 3B) identify ethical salience as a mediating mechanism for the effects of loyalty on cheating. In Chapter 6, I find evidence that competition moderates the effects of loyalty on cheating in three studies (4, 5A and 5B) conducted in the field and using an online pool of participants. Finally, in Chapter 7, two studies (6A and 6B) provide evidence loyalty might be unique among ethical principles in fostering both ethicality and corruption.

In summary, this dissertation builds on recent advances in moral psychology to emphasize the importance of loyalty to individual psychology. It contributes to existing research on behavioral ethics, which has identified several factors that lead even good people to engage in unethical behavior. By providing a definition of loyalty that is consistent with its conception as an ethical principle and its manifest partial nature, I help to differentiate loyalty from related constructs. The studies included in this dissertation represent the first research to demonstrate that loyalty affects actual ethical behavior. In contrast to headlines and the prevailing paradigm in moral philosophy that paints loyalty as inherently biasing and corruptive, this research demonstrates that loyalty can also promote ethicality. But this finding comes with an important caveat. When the goals of loyalty are made clear and those goals conflict with other ethical concerns, loyalty can bind the loyal to unethical actions and blind the loyal to the consequences of those actions. The loyal and those who demand loyalty beware: loyalty can be a force for good and bad.

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