What makes you who you are, and not someone else? Of course, lots of characteristics may distinguish you from other people — your favorite food, your propensity to change into your pajamas the second you walk in the door to your house, that weird way you can bend your thumb all the way back so that it touches your wrist.
But if you’re like many other adults, you might think that your moral characteristics are the most central part of you. In past research, adults reported that changes to moral characteristics would lead to the greatest overall change in who someone is as a person. Further, adults seem to think that good moral characteristics are especially central and constitute a person’s “true self,” or who that person is deep down inside.
We asked whether social consensus might play a role in how people perceive the centrality of moral characteristics, and we also wondered who these “people” might be. Prior work on the centrality of moral characteristics had only tested adults, but research from developmental psychology shows that the way people think about identity undergoes drastic changes during adolescence. We wanted to see whether children who hadn’t yet undergone these changes would think about the role of morality in identity differently from adults.
To answer these questions, we asked 8- to 10-year-olds and adults how much they and another person would change if they took a magic pill that changed only one thing about them and left everything else the same. In some cases, the pill changed a widely-shared belief or a belief that most people in a culture would have in common, like whether hitting other people is wrong. In other cases, the pill changed a controversial moral belief or a belief that elicits disagreement among people, like whether it is okay to tell someone a small lie to help them feel better. Both children and adults reported that they and other people would change more if their widely-shared moral beliefs, rather than their controversial moral beliefs, changed.
This finding suggests that moral qualities that are common across many people might be seen as especially central. Furthermore, the identity-related changes that occur during adolescence don’t seem to influence this pattern, since both pre-adolescents and adults in our dataset viewed widely shared moral beliefs as a more central aspect of identity than controversial moral beliefs.
Next, we wondered whether the direction of change mattered. Because adults think that the “true self” is morally good, they might perceive more change if someone moved away from that true self — in other words, if a person used to hold a “good” moral belief but then comes to hold a “bad” one. This is exactly what we found in a second study, where we told participants about one group of people who used to hold “good” moral beliefs (like believing that hitting is wrong) that then changed into “bad” moral beliefs (like believing that hitting is okay) and about another group of people who underwent changes in the opposite direction.
Adults reported that the first group of people changed more than the second. Children, however, didn’t distinguish between the two groups. This could be because children have weaker ideas about the “true self” being morally good, but it could also be because we tested fewer children than adults or because our task wasn’t sensitive enough among children. It is difficult to draw strong conclusions from a lack of difference, and additional research can clarify whether a difference might emerge in some conditions (for example, with a different task or among a different age group of children).
These findings are described in the article Who am I? The role of moral beliefs in children’s and adults’ understanding of identity, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. You can find a a version of the article on the lab’s website here. This work was conducted by Larisa Heiphetz at Columbia University, Nina Strohminger at the University of Pennsylvania, Susan Gelman at the University of Michigan, and Liane Young at Boston College.