Martin Luther King, Jr. & Eliot Spitzer: On letting people off the hook [Part I]
Martin Luther King, Jr. committed adultery. So did Eliot Spitzer. And although CNN’s David Gergen insists he did not compare Eliot Spitzer with Martin Luther King, Jr., we know of some researchers who did.
Effron & Monin (2010) wondered what made the difference in how we decide to punish some people for bad behavior let others off the hook. One thesis was about whether the transgression involved the same area of activity in which you had done good works. They were interested in both “blatant transgressions” (e.g., behavior representing moral violations) and “ambiguous transgressions” (e.g., suspicious behavior that could, but need not, represent moral violations).
Martin Luther King, Jr. made powerful contributions to civil rights and he was unfaithful to his wife. Two different areas.
Eliot Spitzer was famous for prosecuting prostitution and sex trafficking and then infamously got tagged as ‘Client No. 9’—caught in a prostitution sting resulting in a very public fall from grace.
Effron & Monin hypothesized that we will forgive “blatant transgressions” when the behavior is preceded by good deeds in a different area. [We would add that in this imperfect contrast another issue is that Dr. King’s conduct was not public until after his death, and he had earned a position of such iconic status by then that his humanness was forgiven.] In essence, the offender is flawed in one area, but esteemed in another. On the other hand, when your bad behavior is in the same domain as your ‘good behavior’ (e.g., both jailing and hiring prostitutes)—you seem hypocritical.
They found this to be true, with some caveats.
If the offender had done good deeds in a different area, they were more likely to be excused for the bad behavior.
And if the offender had done good deeds in the same area, they were not excused—because they were a hypocrite.
If the offender had done good deeds in either the same area or a different area—they were excused but for different reasons.
Offenders who had done good deeds in a different area were excused because they had done prior good deeds.
Offenders who had done good deeds in the same area were excused also—but because the good deeds modified observer perception of the ambiguous transgression. As in, “maybe he was simply misunderstood”.
The authors conclude:
“when people are called on to judge a morally dubious behavior, they consider not only the behavior itself, but also the moral track record of the actor who performed it. Establishing an exemplary track record may thus allow actors to minimize the risk that their subsequent misdeeds will elicit condemnation from observers—unless actors attempt to commit blatant transgressions in the same domain as their exemplary behavior.”
While we wonder what Effron & Monin would say about Eliot Spitzer’s new CNN show, we also think there are good lessons in their work for litigation advocacy and certainly for managing public relations crises due to exposed bad behavior. We’ll post those on Wednesday.
Effron DA, & Monin B (2010). Letting people off the hook: when do good deeds excuse transgressions? Personality and social psychology bulletin, 36 (12), 1618-34 PMID: 20978222