Do We Let Our Loved Ones Off The Hook Too Easily?

Psychologist Rachel Forbes discusses how we behave when the ones we love misbehave.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 17, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigates why we might be too easy on our loved ones' (and too harsh on ourselves) when they indulge in unethical behavior.

I recently spoke to psychologist Rachel Forbes, the author of the paper from the University of Toronto, to understand this phenomenon better. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of ethical evaluations in close relationships?

Past research tells us a lot about how we respond to a stranger's unethical behavior, but very little about how we respond when the perpetrator is someone we care deeply about.

When someone close to us behaves unethically, we face a conflict between upholding our moral values and maintaining our relationship. We conducted this research to better understand this conflict.

Can you give a brief description of your research methodology? What would you say was your most important finding?

We used a diverse set of methods to test our research question. People were shown scenarios of hypothetical wrongdoings (Study 1). They recalled a time they witnessed or heard about an unethical act (Study 2). Over a two-week period, people reported unethical acts they witnessed in their daily lives (Study 3). Finally, in the laboratory, we provided them with information that suggested their partner in the study had acted unethically (Study 4). Across all these studies we compared strangers to close others (friends, family, and romantic partners).

We measured people's emotional responses, such as anger and disgust towards the transgressor and embarrassment, shame, and guilt towards themselves, their evaluations of the transgressor's and their own moral character, their desires to punish or criticize the other person, and the impact the bad behavior had on their relationship.

When confronted with unethical actions, participants reacted more leniently to close others, reporting less anger and disgust toward them, rating them as less unethical, and reporting less of a desire to punish or criticize them compared to strangers. Interestingly, participants also reported only a minimal impact on their relationship with those close others. However, at the same time, participants also exhibited harsher responses towards themselves, such as greater embarrassment, shame, and guilt and sometimes even lower ratings of their own morality when close others compared to strangers transgressed.

The most interesting finding to me is the deep ambivalence we find when people respond to close others' unethical actions. There is a surprising irony in people's responses, that by protecting close others, the self seems to bear some of the burden of their misbehavior. We seem to maintain our relationships with unethical close others by reacting leniently, but our moral values still lead us to still feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty about their actions.

What are the reasons that make someone close to the transgressor be lenient with them?

People place great value on their close relationships. People are committed to their loved ones, have investments in their relationships, and rely on their close others to fulfill fundamental needs.

However, people also care deeply about being moral. Most individuals internalize the desire to be a good person and avoid contact, let alone connection, to another unethical person. If our loved ones behave in a way that violates our moral values, what do we do?

One option to maintain our moral values is to distance ourselves from close others who transgress by exiting the relationship, but given our reliance on those we care about, this is extremely costly. It is far less costly, and preferable, to avoid seeing a close other negatively even in the face of their bad behavior. Leniency allows us to maintain our relationships.

Your study talks about a couple of ways through which people rationalize their close others' actions. Could you describe for us the ways in which this bias presents itself in people?

When judging a close others' bad behavior, we tend to view the act itself as less unethical.

For instance, people judge the unethical act of putting a bar bill on someone else's hotel tab as less unethical if it's committed by a romantic partner or friend compared to if it was committed by a stranger. By viewing the act itself as less bad, we're in turn able to perceive our close others less negatively, maintaining our relationship.

We also find some evidence that people tend to attribute close others' bad behavior more to situational factors (e.g., "He was so drunk that he was not thinking clearly") rather than internal, trait-based factors (e.g., "He is vindictive and petty") compared to a stranger's bad behavior where we find the opposite. Attributing bad behavior to the situation again allows us to view our close others in a more positive light.

Why do close others' questionable actions affect our own self-image? Could you maybe explain this phenomenon with an example (from your study or otherwise)?

Despite responding more leniently towards close others who transgress, people felt worse about themselves when people they love misbehave by feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. This finding is anticipated by the research on moral contagion.

We find evidence that having a connection to the perpetrator, through a close bond, may enhance the sense that a close other's bad behavior somehow reflects upon you.

For example, if a person finds out their romantic partner spread an untrue rumor about one of their coworkers, they tend to feel guilty and ashamed of the behavior, even though they didn't do anything wrong themselves. This is likely due to the shared sense of identity we have with those we care about and therefore we feel partially at fault when they behave badly.

Do you have any advice for people who struggle with being honest with themselves and others about their loved ones' unethical behavior?

The ambivalence we feel when confronted with close others' bad behavior is difficult to reconcile. When faced with a loved ones' unethical behavior, it's important to reflect on our moral values and whether the act itself fits within those values.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

Myself and my colleagues Dr. Jennifer Stellar and Yachen Li (lead author) are now examining how people respond when they are the beneficiaries of their close others' unethical actions, expanding my work here by going beyond acts where close others did not directly benefit.

I am also expanding on this research by examining how other social contexts can impact our moral perceptions. In upcoming work, I examine how a perpetrator's power can impact feelings of moral outrage toward them.

In the future, I'd like to see research address an important limitation in our work which is that we did not examine responses to extremely severe immoral actions. Highly immoral acts would certainly place a greater strain on the relationship and therefore could show different effects.

One relevant example I often bring up when talking about this work is a quote by Today show host Savannah Guthrie in response to the accusations of sexual misconduct against her colleague and friend, Matt Lauer. Guthrie responded to the news of the accusations on air, saying "We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?".

In the context of very severe unethical actions, the conflict with one's moral values is likely more apparent. We don't yet know how close others may respond because this of course is very difficult to study.