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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014 May;106(5):790-802. doi: 10.1037/a0036040.

Moral actor, selfish agent.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology.

Abstract

People are motivated to behave selfishly while appearing moral. This tension gives rise to 2 divergently motivated selves. The actor-the watched self-tends to be moral; the agent-the self as executor-tends to be selfish. Three studies present direct evidence of the actor's and agent's distinct motives. To recruit the self-as-actor, we asked people to rate the importance of various goals. To recruit the self-as-agent, we asked people to describe their goals verbally. In Study 1, actors claimed their goals were equally about helping the self and others (viz., moral); agents claimed their goals were primarily about helping the self (viz., selfish). This disparity was evident in both individualist and collectivist cultures, attesting to the universality of the selfish agent. Study 2 compared actors' and agents' motives to those of people role-playing highly prosocial or selfish exemplars. In content (Study 2a) and in the impressions they made on an outside observer (Study 2b), actors' motives were similar to those of the prosocial role-players, whereas agents' motives were similar to those of the selfish role-players. Study 3 accounted for the difference between the actor and agent: Participants claimed that their agent's motives were the more realistic and that their actor's motives were the more idealistic. The selfish agent/moral actor duality may account for why implicit and explicit measures of the same construct diverge, and why feeling watched brings out the better angels of human nature.

PMID:
24749822
DOI:
10.1037/a0036040
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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