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Moral Character and Trustworthiness
Taya R. Cohen
Editors’ Note: The author considers character as a key element in building trust. Yet she finds moral character to be a phenomenon somewhat independent of the “calculus-based” and “identification-based” concepts of trust discussed elsewhere in this volume by Roy Lewicki. Cohen argues that individuals can be assessed as having high or low moral character, and that high moral character is justly rewarded with the trust of others.
A central question in deciding whom to negotiate with and how to negotiate with them is whether one’s potential negotiation counterpart is trustworthy. If a negotiation counterpart is deemed trustworthy, greater information sharing and joint value creation will generally follow. So, who is a trustworthy negotiator? As a general rule, trustworthy negotiators are those with high levels of moral character—a term I use to describe an individual's disposition to think, feel, and behave in an ethical manner. [NDR: Lewicki, Trust] Individuals with high levels of moral character have greater integrity and are more benevolent than individuals with low levels of moral character—two of the fundamental components of trustworthiness (Mayer, Davis and Schoorman 1995).
In recent years, psychologists have made much progress in identifying personality characteristics indicative of moral character (Cohen and Morse 2014; Cohen et al. 2013, 2014; Hilbig and Zettler 2015; Lee and Ashton 2012). Broadly construed, we can summarize profiles of high and low moral character adults as follows. People with high levels of moral character consider the needs and interests of others, and how their own behavior affects other people. When these individuals do something wrong they feel guilty and try to correct for what they did, even if no one knows about it. Generally, those with high levels of moral character are trustworthy, benevolent, reliable, and compassionate. In contrast, people with low levels of moral character are callous, manipulative, unreliable, and more focused on themselves than on other people. When these individuals do something wrong they are unlikely to feel bad about their behavior or attempt to correct for their mistakes. Generally, those with low levels of moral character are cruel, dishonest, and inconsiderate.
Personality assessments that capture information relevant to moral character predict ethical behaviors applicable to negotiations. [NDR: Hinshaw, Ethics] In this chapter I focus on two key moral character traits that influence behaviors relevant to behaving in a trustworthy manner in negotiations: guilt proneness and honesty-humility. Much of the research I will discuss assessed personality with self-report instruments. With self-report instruments of moral character traits, there is a concern about people lying on the questionnaires. In most research studies this is not a concern because respondents are anonymous and have no reason to lie. Still, the potential to misreport one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in questionnaires is a potential problem for using self-report methods in high-stakes settings. To address this issue, my current research focuses on moving beyond self-reports to develop alternative methods for identifying moral character in others, such as interview methods. Initial research in this area indicates that moral character can be accurately judged (Cohen et al. 2013; Helzer et al. 2014), but this evidence is still preliminary, especially for detecting moral character in high-stakes settings. Nonetheless, research with self-report questionnaires is valuable in that it has greatly facilitated our understanding of what moral character is and what moral character does (Cohen and Morse 2014). In the sections that follow, I review some of the key findings from this literature.
Guilt proneness is an individual difference capturing the strength of one’s conscience. People who are high in guilt proneness anticipate negative feelings about their behavior if they were to do wrong, even if no one knew about the wrongdoing. In contrast, people who are low in guilt proneness do not anticipate feeling guilty about bad behavior. Keep in mind that guilt proneness is about feeling guilty for bad behavior—not about ruminating or feeling guilty in general. It is also different from shame proneness, which is an individual difference that reflects the extent to which people anticipate negative feelings about themselves in response to wrongdoing. That is, shame proneness is characterized by feeling like....
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