Concerns about morality can predict willingness to acquiesce to institutional procedures that were minimally fair and even ones that were unfair (Bauman, 2006). Interestingly, when individuals believe that an authority has acted in contradiction to their moral beliefs, they are more likely to oppose any authority. Mullens and Nadler (2008) found that individuals were both significantly less likely to return a pen to the experimenter, despite having been asked at the beginning of the experiment to do so, and more likely to cheat on an experimental task, after reading about a legal decision with which they morally disagreed.
In Mullen and Skitka (2009), participants read about various criminal cases. Each of these cases had a few procedural violations that could influence evaluations of the fairness of the decision. Some participants read about a case where the defendant was acquitted for a crime that supported, opposed, or was neutral to the participant’s moral convictions. Others read about a case where the defendant was convicted of a crime that supported, opposed, or was neutral to the participant’s moral convictions. If the defendant’s crime was neutral to the participant’s moral convictions, they tended to prefer guilty verdicts, believing these verdicts to be more fair. If the defendant’s crime supported their moral convictions, they tended to find an acquittal or a conviction to be equally fair. If the defendant’s crimes opposed their moral convictions, they tended to find an acquittal to be unfair. In this last case, the amount of anger reported by the participant mediated this relationship. The more angry the participant was, the less fair they found the verdict.
Interestingly, participants across all conditions were equally likely to review the details of the court case. They, in other words, did not read an unfavorable verdict, reread the case, pay more attention to procedural violations, and then change their judgment. Instead, the moral salience of the verdict, and associated emotion, directly influenced fairness judgments.
While it’s clear that the participants are engaging in biased processing, it’s not clear to what extent participants are elaborating. There was no evidence of differences in elaboration between manipulations, which is somewhat surprising, given that individuals could have been more motivated to elaborate verdicts that were self-relevant (relevant to their moral mandate, emotionally stimulating).
However, it’s possible that they were elaborating when making the procedural and outcome fairness judgments (the two fairness judgments measured), just not in a way that the experiment could detect. It seems that all participants felt that the defendant was somewhat likely to be guilty. It would be interesting if seeing an individual who shares your moral convictions but probably broke the law initiated a cognitive process that lead to dis-identification with the legal system (I don’t care whether they were acquitted or guilty because I reject a system that does not up hold my moral convictions) or whether it initiated a cognitive process that lead to protection of the legal system (I understand that the legal system exists for a reason and I wish it could be changed. Until it is changed, the verdict was fair if they were acquitted because there were procedural errors, and the verdict was also fair if they were convicted because the defendant could have been guilty). It could also be that seeing someone who supports your moral convictions guilty of committing a crime based on those convictions evokes more heuristic processing (I’m feeling troubled and confused, so I’m not going to make a judgment and consider whatever the verdict is at least somewhat fair).
I would be interested in whether that result changes with increasing time pressure. I would be interested in whether self-reported anger increases or decreases elaboration. Does the threat of someone who opposes your moral convictions being acquitted increase the need for specific closure?