Why Poor People Have Harsher Moral Judgments

Morals is certainly one of my interests, as is evidenced by my series on Michael Sandel’s bookWhat Money Can[‘t] Buy. And so, when I came across a journal article called, “A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments,” I was intrigued, if not a bit saddened.

The researchers attempted to test the idea of whether a lack of material resources would cause people to have harsher moral judgments. The reason they posited this was because a lack of material resources is correlated with a lower ability to cope with other people’s harsh behaviour. Not only were they able to prove that a relationship exists between a lack of material resources and harsher moral judgments, but they were also able to prove this true in state dependent instances. Meaning, yes, a lack of material resources corresponded to making harsher judgments, but even when participants perceived themselves as having a lack of material resources, they offered harsher moral judgments.

The implications of this research seem rather important.

While it’s not specifically addressed in the study, I wonder what the plotted relationship between harsher moral judgments and income would look like. That is, I wonder at what point does income no longer correlate with harsher moral judgments. In particular, I wonder about the whole idea that there are 24 times as many millionaires in the US Congress than there are in the US population. As a result, I’d expect that moral judgments would be less harsh (than if there were fewer millionaires), but we know that doesn’t quite make sense because there are more things than just income that affect moral judgments.

More recently, however, I wonder about the World Economic Forum and the data released that less than 100 people have as much wealth as over 50% of the world’s population. By the information gleaned from the study, we’d expect that over half of the world’s population would have harsh moral judgments.

On a smaller scale, I’d wonder about the psychological health of people who have harsher moral judgments. It may seem only tangentially related, but negative thinking has been shown to have negative effects on one’s health. As  result, I’d expect that these harsher moral judgments might have an effect on one’s health.

ResearchBlogging.orgM. Pitesa, & S. Thau (2014). A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797613514092

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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  1. I feel that the lack of income or material goods cannot be directly related to the harshness of ones morals. One could be perfectly happy in their poverty, happy with what they have, not wishing for what they don’t. I believe this could continue until the harshness of society begins to wear it away. Being ridiculed and passed over countless times must make the person in poverty feel like they are unwanted by society. These feelings of un want can then cause the individual to feel harsh towards people, because that is how they have been treated. Everyone dispersing the responsibility to be kind to the individual, and no one taking it upon themselves, could have that negative of an effect on the individual’s morals and tendencies.


    1. Hi Meredith,

      Thanks for your comment. I hear that you feel that the lack of income or material goods cannot be directly related to the harshness of one’s morals, but that’s exactly what the researchers were studying. The second half of your comment (how the harshness develops) is quite possibly a reason why this harshness may develop, but when we look at the “state dependent” study that the researchers did (that is, making people in the moment perceive having a lack of material resources), it makes it harder to think that this might be the reason.


  2. Hi. It is possible that the lack of income or material goods could be directly related to the harshness of ones morals, but maybe the researchers should look at it from a cross-cultural perspective. Just recently psychologists and researchers have been taking closer looks at how cultural factors have influenced patterns of behavior. If the researchers looked at this perspective they would look at the diversity of human behavior in different cultural settings and countries. I personally think if the researchers looked at it from this perspective they would find a substantial amount of evidence to support cross cultural being linked to the harshness of ones morals.


    1. Hi Brittany,

      Thanks for your comment. You make an excellent point that, in most cases, psychological research doesn’t always hold up when viewed cross-culturally. However, in this case, the researchers took this into account. In the first study, they had survey responses from 56 countries over a 13-year span (approximately 85,000 in total). For the second study, they had participants from the Mechanical Turk, so they didn’t specify in the journal article where they were from.


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