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Legal, Criminological and Forensic, Social and behavioural

When people close to us behave immorally, we are inclined to protect them

Even if their crimes are particularly heinous.

30 September 2019

By Matthew Warren

If you saw a stranger break into someone’s house in the middle of the night, you’d probably call the police. But what if it was a friend or family member who was committing the crime? A new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at the tension between wanting to punish people who commit immoral acts and protecting those with whom we have close relationships. And it turns out that if someone close to us behaves immorally, we tend to err on the side of protecting them — even if their crime is especially egregious.

Across a series of ten studies involving a total of almost 3,000 participants, Aaron Weidman and colleagues at the University of Michigan examined how people say they would respond if someone close to them were to commit a crime. In the first study, the team asked participants to name nine people, ranging from distant acquaintances (e.g. a postal worker) to those with whom they had a close relationship (e.g. a romantic partner). Participants imagined they had witnessed each person committing a crime, which varied from low severity, such as illegally downloading a file, to high severity, such as committing a burglary. If they were then approached by a police officer, the participants were asked, would they tell the truth or lie and say they didn’t know anything?

Participants were more likely to respond that they would lie to the police officer when they imagined that someone close to them had committed the crime, compared to when the perpetrator was only a distant acquaintance. And, worryingly, the effect was strongest when the crime was at the severe end of the scale.

Subsequent studies used variations on this design to further explore the effect. The team found, for instance, that participants were also more likely to protect close others who had committed crimes involving sexual harassment, again ranging from low severity (e.g. whistling) to high severity (e.g. groping). Individual differences like gender and political or moral beliefs didn’t seem to affect the pattern of responses. And participants believed that it was in their self-interest to protect a perpetrator who was close to them, and that lying to cover up for a more distant perpetrator would cause more harm to society than protecting someone close.

The team also found that despite a reluctance to punish close family members, participants still seemed to understand that their crimes were morally wrong. In three further studies, participants who imagined crimes being committed by close others generally rated the crimes as just as immoral as those who imagined them being committed by distant acquaintances. And they also seemed to justify their lack of action against close family by saying that they would themselves confront the perpetrator instead. “We suspect that doing so allows a person to simultaneously (a) maintain their self-image as a morally upstanding individual and (b) preserve and even enhance the close relationship,” the authors write.

These findings could explain why, time and again, we hear of high profile figures who have been committing horrific crimes for decades, aided by the silence of their close friends and family. And even more disturbingly, they suggest that as much as we may like to think we are better than that, many of us would also protect those we’re close to if we were in similar situations.

But there is some hope. The researchers also found that when people were encouraged to distance themselves from the situation by thinking of themselves in the third-person, their tendency to protect close others was reduced. “Future work is needed to explore the applied implications of subtle shifts in language for regulating our moral decision making,” the researchers conclude.

Of course, the study relied on participants predicting how they would respond, and further research is also needed to find out whether people act similarly in the real world to cover for those they are close to. If anything, the authors suggest, participants may have underpredicted how willing they would be to lie to the police in order to protect people they love.

Further reading

– Punish or Protect? How Close Relationships Shape Responses to Moral Violations

About the author

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest