Sociologists say that people with high integrity and moral behaviour generally behave very well.
For decades, sociologists have posited that individual behaviour results from cultural expectations in the situation about how to act.
In a new study, Jan E. Stets of University of California, Riverside, and Michael J. Carter of California State University, Northridge, found that how individuals see themselves in moral terms is also an important motivator of behaviour.
Stock brokers, investment advisors, and mortgage lenders who caused the recession were able to act as they did, without shame or guilt, perhaps because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behaviour that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues, Stets explained.
"To the extent that others in a situation VERIFY or confirm the meanings set by a person's identity standard and as expressed in a person's behaviour, the more the person will continue to engage in these behaviours," she said of the theory of moral identity she and Carter advance.
"One's identity standard guides a person's behaviour. Then the person sees the reactions of others to one's own behaviour. If others have a low moral identity and others do not challenge the illicit behaviour that follows from it, then the person will continue to do what s/he is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge," she explained.
The sociologists surveyed a diverse group of more than 350 university students in a two-phase study that measured students' moral identity, assessment of specific situations as having a moral component, and moral emotions, such as guilt and shame.
The students first were asked how they responded in specific situations where they had a choice to do the right or wrong thing; for example, copy another student's answers, drive home drunk, take an item, give to charity, allow another student to copy their answers, let a friend drive home drunk, return a lost item, or return money to a cashier.
Three months later, survey respondents were asked how to rate each scenario in moral terms, and how they thought individuals ought to feel following doing the right or wrong thing in each situation.
The students placed themselves on along a continuum between two contradictory characteristics - honest/dishonest, caring/uncaring, unkind/kind, unfair/fair, helpful/not helpful, stingy/generous, compassionate/hardhearted, untruthful/truthful, not hardworking/hardworking, friendly/unfriendly, selfish/selfless, and principled/unprincipled.
The more that individuals endorsed themselves as honest, caring, kind, fair, helpful, generous, compassionate, truthful, hardworking, friendly, selfless, and principled, the higher their moral identity.
Wherever individuals are located on this continuum, they act with the goal of verifying the meanings of who they are that is set by their moral identity standard, Stets and Carter said.
"We found that individuals with a high moral identity score were more likely to behave morally, while those with a low moral identity score were less likely to behave morally. Respondents who received feedback from others that did not verify their moral identity standard were more likely to report guilt and shame than those whose identities were verified," they revealed.
The goal is live up to one's self-view however that appears across the moral continuum from being very uncaring and unjust to very caring and very just, the researchers said.
The study was published in the current issue of the journal American Sociological Review.