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It’s Only Wrong If It’s Transactional: Moral Perceptions of Obfuscated Exchange

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A wide class of economic exchanges, such as bribery and compensated adoption, are considered morally disreputable precisely because they are seen as economic exchanges. However, parties to these exchanges can structurally obfuscate them by arranging the transfers so as to obscure that a disreputable exchange is occurring at all. In this article, we propose that four obfuscation structures—bundling, brokerage, gift exchange, and pawning—will decrease the moral opprobrium of external audiences by (1) masking intentionality, (2) reducing the explicitness of the reciprocity, and (3) making the exchange appear to be a type of common practice. We report the results from four experiments assessing participants’ moral reactions to scenarios that describe either an appropriate exchange, a quid pro quo disreputable exchange, or various forms of obfuscated exchange. In support of our hypotheses, results show that structural obfuscation effectively mitigates audiences’ moral offense at disreputable exchanges and that the effects are substantially mediated by perceived attributional opacity, transactionalism, and collective validity.

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