Personality, Empathy, and Moral Development: Examining Ethical Reasoning in Relation to the Big Five and the Dark Triad

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1 Personality, Empathy, and Moral Development: Examining Ethical Reasoning in Relation to the Big Five and the Dark Triad Williams, K.M., Orpen, S., Hutchinson, L.R., Walker, L.J., & Zumbo, B.D. University of British Columbia Poster presented at the 67 th annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association, June 2006, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Correspondence may be addressed to the first author at INTRODUCTION Personality and moral development each represent major spheres of psychological research. However, our empirical understanding of the role of moral development within the context of personality remains underdeveloped (Walker & Hennig, 1997). Given the importance of personality and moral development to everyday behavior and decisionmaking, this void presents a significant target for psychological study. Specifically, such research would elucidate the intrapersonal components of moral development, and highlight the role of personality in perceptions of just and unjust behavior, ethical reasoning, and resolutions of moral dilemmas. In turn, a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay among personality, moral development, and behavior may be achieved. PROCEDURE We examined the links between personality and moral development using a comprehensive battery of self-report scales, completed in small laboratory group settings. Among the personality constructs most relevant for inclusion are the fundamental Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional 1

2 Stability, and Openness to Experience; see John & Srivastava, 1999). We also included measures of the aversive Dark Triad personality constructs (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and subclinical psychopathy; Paulhus & Williams, 2002), as each are theoretically linked to poor moral functioning. Given the critical role of empathy specifically perspective taking as a cognitive prerequisite of higher moral reasoning (e.g., Kohlberg, 1976), we included a measure of Davis (1980) four facets of empathy (Fantasy Seeking, Perspective Taking, Personal Distress, Empathic Concern). Also relevant is individuals general interpersonal disposition, which may be summarized via two main factors: Agency and Communion, which we measured with the Survey of Agentic and Communal Values (Trapnell & Paulhus, 2004). Finally, we assessed moral judgment development with the Defining Issues Test-2 (i.e., N2 scores; Rest et al., 1999). Participants included 307 students at the University of British Columbia. The majority were female (76%), of either East Asian (48%) or European (20%) heritage, and in their first year of university (41%). The mean age of the sample was 20.1 years. We examined correlations between the personality and morality scales, and conducted multiple regression analyses to determine the role of Perspective Taking as either a mediator or moderator in any of these links. RESULTS Personality correlations. Correlations between the various personality scales and the DIT-2 are presented in Table 1. Results demonstrated that Openness and Conscientiousness were associated with higher moral development, as was Perspective Taking. Conversely, Agentic values and Personal Distress were associated with low 2

3 moral development, as well as Machiavellianism and psychopathy 1. Also listed in Table 1 are correlations disattenuated for the relatively low reliability of the DIT-2 (.66). Perspective Taking as a mediator/moderator. Interestingly, Perspective Taking either fully (psychopathy) or partially (Machiavellianism) mediated each of these latter relationships (Sobel s z = and -3.09, p <.01, respectively; see Figures 1 and 2). Perspective Taking also moderated the relationship between Conscientiousness and moral development (interaction b = -2.84, p <.05; Figure 3). That is, the relationship between Conscientiousness and moral development was much stronger for individuals low in Perspective Taking (simple slope b = 3.40, p <.01), whereas Conscientiousness had little impact on the moral development of individuals with high Perspective Taking scores (simple slope b = -.39, p >.05). More specifically, the combination of low Conscientiousness and low Perspective Taking was particularly associated with low moral judgment development. DISCUSSION Our results confirm the few studies that have examined the links between fundamental personality traits and moral development namely, that Openness and Conscientiousness are associated with high levels of morality (e.g., Dollinger & LaMartina, 1998). These findings support the idea that basic personality characteristics such as tolerance and dutifulness are relevant to individuals ethical decision making behavior. Agentic values, which include strivings for power, status, and influence, coincide with a moral schema that is less altruistic and more self-serving. Our Dark Triad results represent novel findings, which also serve to further distinguish the three 1 Controlling for various moral development covariates verbal ability, sex, political orientation, and English Second Language status did not significantly alter these results. 3

4 constructs from each other. Narcissism is unrelated to moral development, and although Machiavellianism and psychopathy are both related to low moral judgment development, the latter is fully mediated by deficiencies in Perspective Taking. Similarly, our analyses further clarify the complex yet significant role of Perspective Taking within the context of moral development. Not only is Perspective Taking a strong correlate of moral development, but it is also an important mediator and moderator. The moderating effect of Perspective Taking on Conscientiousness may explain why empirical support for the association between Conscientiousness and moral development has historically been elusive. In summary, our results provide important insights regarding the relationships among personality, empathy, and moral development. These findings provide clear evidence that a wide range of personality traits bear upon our moral decision-making processes. These results may be useful in future research examining various behavioral outcomes, such as the immoral actions related to Machiavellianism and subclinical psychopathy, as well as the relative temporal dynamics of moral and personality development. 4

5 REFERENCES Davis, M. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85. Dollinger, S.J., & LaMartina, A.K. (1998). A note on moral reasoning and the fivefactor model. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 13, John, O.P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L.A. Pervin & O.P John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (2 nd ed.)(pp ). New York: Guilford Press. Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues (pp ). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Wilson. Paulhus, D.L., & Williams, K.M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, Rest, J.R., Narvaez, D., Thoma, S.J., & Bebeau, M.J. (1999). DIT-2: Devising and testing a revised instrument of moral judgment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, Trapnell, P.D., & Paulhus, D.L. (2004). Survey of agentic and communal values. Poster presented at the 5 th annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Austin, TX. Walker, L.J., & Hennig, K.H. (1997). Moral development in the broader context of personality. In S. Hala (Ed.), The development of social cognition (pp ). East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press Ltd. 5

6 Table 1. Correlations between personality and moral development. Moral Development Correlation Personality Variable Raw Disattenuated Big Five Extraversion Agreeableness Conscientiousness Stability Openness Dark Triad Narcissism Machiavellianism Psychopathy Empathy Fantasy Seeking Perspective Taking Personal Distress Empathic Concern Values Agency Communion N = 307. Correlations at least.12 sig. at p <.05, correlations at least.15 sig. at p <.01. 6

7 Perspective Taking Subclinical Psychopathy -.16 (-.10) High Moral Development Figure 1. Full mediation of the psychopathy-morality correlation via Perspective Taking. Perspective Taking Machiavellianism -.20 (-.14) High Moral Development Figure 2. Partial mediation of the Machiavellianism-morality correlation via Perspective Taking. Note: Values in parentheses specify standardized partial regression coefficients, all remaining values specify correlation coefficients. Values at least.12 sig. at p <.05, values at least.15 sig. at p <.01. 7

8 Moral Development Perspective Taking High Moderate Low Low Conscientiousness High Figure 3. Interaction between Conscientiousness and Perspective Taking on Moral Development Scores. Note: Low and high Conscientious scores defined as 2 standard deviations above and below the mean, respectively. Low, moderate, and high Perspective Taking scores defined as 1 standard deviation below mean, mean, and 1 standard deviation above mean, respectively. 8

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