I attended an interesting academic presentation today on the topic of “Moral Malleability.” While it was written in a marketing context, it was very relevant to writing fiction: it dealt with how people tend to respond when a company (or, in a novelist’s case, a person or organization) does something we perceive as wrong. There are four main ways in which a person/character can react when they perceive that they have been wronged: they can choose to forgive unilaterally (not harbor ill feelings toward the other party), seek to reconcile (both parties work together to move forward), do nothing (but harbor ill feelings toward the other party), and most dramatically, seek revenge. Muahahaha. (The evil laughter wasn’t part of the academic presentation.)
Now, we all know that seeking revenge is typically wrong. It often involves behaviors that we would admit violate our own morals, or that even break the law. For instance, we’d all say that cheating, stealing, lying, and so forth are wrong. They’re not the kind of actions that we condone, and they’re not the kind of descriptions that we would apply to ourselves. But research has discovered that when people find that they’ve been wronged, their sense of morality tends to…well…fudge, a little. Suddenly, things that yesterday you would have said are wrong, today you might say are justified.
How so? Let me give an example. Researchers promised participants a dollar for filling out a long, complex survey. At the end of the survey, however, some of the participants were told that the company had made a mistake and hadn’t meant to include them in the study, but they would receive a dollar anyway; other participants were told that they shouldn’t have been included, and they would only receive 50 cents; and the last group of participants were told that they shouldn’t have been included, and they wouldn’t receive any money at all. Clearly, the last two situations are unfair and wrong, with the last being worse than the second. After this, all three groups of people were asked to complete a second (unrelated) research task: they were supposed to complete a number of math problems on paper, and self-report how many of the problems they got right, when they were showed the right answer on the next screen. The more problems they reported getting right, the more of a monetary reward they would receive. (Thus, respondents had a financial motive to cheat.)
As you might expect, the respondents in the condition that were cheated out of a dollar tended to report far more correct answers than those who were cheated out of 50 cents, who reported more than those who were paid the full dollar they were promised. Well, this makes sense, we might say to ourselves. They should have received money from the company – they’re just cheating in name only to get the money that was due to them.
But wait. There’s more. Another study was done where separate participants were asked to think about a time that a company did something that made them angry (half the respondents), or to think about a time that a company did something that made them mildly frustrated (the other half). Then they were asked how wrong it would be to borrow an item from a clothing store, wear it to an event, then return the item to the store for a full refund. The respondents who remembered being angry about something a company had done were far more likely to say that it was morally acceptable to “borrow” new clothing from a store with the purpose of wearing it and returning it – even though this company had done nothing to wrong them.
So what do these marketing and psychology findings tell us about our stories? Unfortunately, they tell us how real people tend to think and behave. If your character was wronged by someone, their “normal” morality may slip, and they may do, say, and try to justify things that normally they would view as wrong. This may involve trying to obtain through immoral methods what they believe they were owed, taking pure revenge (you hurt me, now I’m going to hurt you), or more practicing what the presentation today called “moral malleability” – letting your morals slide in a completely different situation because you’re feeling hurt and wronged by someone else.
Of course, this won’t happen all the time. Characters (and people) who have a firm moral compass will often resist the urge to do wrong, even when they’ve had wrong done to them. But whether or not your characters ultimately decide to do what’s right or wrong, to turn the other cheek or seek an eye for an eye, it’s worth knowing as an author that psychologically, the temptations are there. Believing that something is wrong isn’t the same as not doing the wrong thing, especially under pressure, or in a situation where one has just been wronged. So what will your character do? That’s up for you as an author to decide – but for realistic stories, make your decision based on realistic psychology.