Q&A: Moral Character Most Important in Our Judgment of Others


A person’s interpersonal warmth is traditionally considered the most influential in whether we like that person or not. But new research suggests moral character is even more important.

For today’s Q&A, we talk with Geoffrey Goodwin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, about how humans perceive each other.

Explorer: Social warmth and competence are said to be the two major ways in which we evaluate people. But in this study, you separated out a third idea, “moral character,” from the broader idea of warmth. Why is it better to think of these ideas as separate?

Our first foray into this research came from reflecting on the meaning of traits like honesty, trustworthiness or having moral principles. We have a certain image of what that moral person is like and it can be very different from the image of someone we’d call warm, sociable and outgoing. There seems to be enough of a conceptual difference between these two sorts of ideas that warrant some kind of separation.

What we did in the study was sort of pit those two ideas against each other as predicting people’s overall impressions. We found that the moral character stuff was certainly more influential.

How did you find moral character to be so influential?

In one study, we gave people summary-level descriptions: “Here’s a person. They’re either warm or not. They have a good moral character or not.” We don’t specify who they are or what the context is. And we asked people to make an overall impression of these people. We just wanted to see if moral character information would dominate at this very general level. And it did relative to warmth.

In other studies we looked at a whole range of possible contexts in which you might encounter somebody, like which social roles the person has. Are they a romantic partner, a boss, a surgeon, a judge, coworker or relative?

Meeting On The Wall, Essaouira, Morocco. Image: Antony Stanley.

Meeting On The Wall, Essaouira, Morocco. Image: Antony Stanley.

We found across a great majority of those different social roles that morality information weighs more heavily than warmth or sociability. We thought warmth might be more important for something like acquaintances, who are just fun to be around, but even there we found moral character to be at least as important.

Moral information was more important for nine of the 12 roles. There were three roles where morality was on par with warmth: a family relative, a cashier at the store, and a social acquaintance, which were the three roles rated as the least important of the 12.

You also did a fascinating study with New York Times obituaries. Can you explain what happened there?

With that we were trying to look at it in a slightly more real-world context. We sampled hundreds of obituaries of notable people in the Times. We had folks read through the obituaries and indicate the extent to which they contained info about whether the person was moral or not, as well as info about their warmth or coldness.

Then, we asked a different bunch of subjects to read through obituaries. At the end, they basically said how positive their impression of this deceased person was. We wanted to predict their positive impressions by what the first group subjectively thought was moral or warm, and found moral character info was more strongly predictive than the social warmth.

Why do you think that people would prefer a moral person to a sociable person?

At the beach in Miraflores, Peru. Image: Alex Proimos.

At the beach in Miraflores, Peru. Image: Alex Proimos.

We’re not sure. We have some ideas about it. The main theory is one that’s not original to us, but has been prominent in this area. It goes like this: a person’s moral character is going to be really important for telling you about another person’s intentions towards you and whether those intentions are going to be helpful or harmful.


One thing we would add is, a lot of people who have worked in this tradition have argued that a person’s social warmth tells you about their intentions. The basic idea is good but the target is slightly off. Rather it’s really character information that tells you their intentions. Warmth tells you something else. It might tell you, to a certain extent, about a person’s effectiveness. If somebody is really warm, they might be particularly skilled, perhaps, at getting allies to support their endeavors, whatever those are. Painting it this way actually places warmth closer to competence then morality. We think moral character is fundamental because it gives you a good understanding of what others’ goals are with respect to you. And that’s important.

The study, “Moral Character Predominates in Person Perception and Evaluation,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured Image: Mohandas Gandhi during the Salt March, 1930. Credit: Yann.