Parking ticket behind windscreen wiper
Parking ticket behind windscreen wiper
(featured image: Paul Sableman/Flickr CC BY)

Why does favouritism persist?

(featured image: Paul Sableman/Flickr CC BY)

We care more for ourselves than for others. This may sound a tad controversial, but it is in fact not surprising: perhaps our oldest and most profound imperative is to pass on our genes — and not those of strangers. So, when it comes to the crunch, we come first.

Of course, in our sophisticated societies, we don’t act this out blindly and in an extreme fashion. Paying a round in the pub (remember those?) to our mates, doing a colleague a favour, or making a donation to a good cause are not likely to significantly endanger our ability to successfully pass on our genes. Also, while collaboration and prosocial behaviour may be puzzling from a narrow, individual perspective, it makes much more sense from a collective viewpoint: societies in which people collaborate will thrive, and so indirectly enable individual success too.

But even in collaboration, we tend to exhibit favouritism: we are more likely to help out close relatives and friends, colleagues, and members of — political or other — groupings we belong to. Some of this undoubtedly consciously instrumental and motivated by reciprocity (we are returning a favour, or anticipating someone else will do so in the future). It may also be a manifestation of tribalism, in which we obey moral obligations towards our fellow tribespeople, regardless of reciprocity. (It can be argued that these are two sides of the same coin, as they both serve social cohesion.)

Some cases of favouritism stand out. Last week, on his last day in office, the 45th president of the United States of America completed a series of presidential pardons totalling 143 individuals, many of whom were close friends and allies ( including his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, his adviser Roger Stone, and Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law). Donald Trump was no exception in this respect, though — Bill Clinton pardoned no less than 140 people on his last day in office, including his brother Roger, and Gerald Ford famously pardoned former president Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal.

Figurine of president (Trump?) saying “You get a pardon! And you get a pardon!” and so on.
Figurine of president (Trump?) saying “You get a pardon! And you get a pardon!” and so on.
Questionable favouritism, but legal favouritism (image: Mike Licht/Flickr CC BY)

This behaviour by American presidents is, while morally perhaps questionable, sanctioned by the constitution. Similar actions to save allies from prosecution, carried out by lesser individuals, are not. I remember hearing, while growing up, plenty of stories about people whose traffic fines somehow disappeared in the system, thanks to a friend or a relative working in the relevant administration who could “take care of it”. Naturally, I never saw actual proof of this, and I suspect things may have been tightened up somewhat since then. But the fact that it has its own particular idiom in Flemish ( “verticaal klasseren”, or to file vertically, alluding to the way papers end up in the bin) strongly suggests that it really was a thing at the time.

Malleable judgement

More generally, our judgement — of ourselves, and of others — is malleable. We tend to be more lenient, and come up with potential mitigating elements, justifications and plain excuses for dodgy deeds when it concerns ourselves or people with whom we associate closely.

A recent paper by Corey Cusimano and Tania Lombrozo, two psychologists at Princeton University, provides an interesting angle on this intriguing tendency. The paper describes a set of studies that investigate the dilemma we sometimes face between believing what is supported by an impartial assessment of the evidence, and believing what is morally desirable or expedient — and in particular why it is not uncommon to verge towards the latter. At first sight, this research seems to have little to do with favouritism, but it is in fact just a different framing. When the evidence suggests one thing, but we believe something else and deliberately act accordingly, we are de facto taking a moral stance. If do believe we are moral beings (something most of us do), then we must believe it is morally preferable to downplay or dismiss the evidence.

A substantial body of research suggests that most people treat impartial, evidence-based reasoning is the only legitimate way to form beliefs. So how do we square that with the relative ease with which we override this, and for example give people the benefit of the doubt, or find justifications for their transgressions?

A central concept in the paper is the discrepancy between what someone ought to believe who was guided solely by the objective assessment of the evidence, and what someone ought to believe who took into account non-evidential considerations (like moral obligations). The authors call this “prescribed motivated reasoning”, as it reflects a prescriptive norm — a permission, if not an obligation, to engage in motivated reasoning.

They investigate this through a series of vignettes, in which the objective evidence favours one belief but some salient moral consideration favours the opposing belief. One of them describes two students, Adam and John. They are old friends, and John is accused of possession of a controlled substance, based on evidence including the fact that cocaine was found in his dorm room (which he does not share with anyone else), and that he has been seen to hang out with known drug dealers. At the same time, John requests that Adam grants him the benefit of the doubt and trusts him out of loyalty and friendship.

Bags of cocaine
Bags of cocaine
How much loyalty to outweigh this evidence? (image: NC Dept of Public Safety/Flickr CC BY)

The researchers find considerable support for the notion of prescribed motivated reasoning. Provided there is a salient and strong enough moral norm — for instance, loyalty between friends demands trust — people indicate that another person (e.g., Adam in the vignette) ought to hold a belief that is inaccurate: “the moral benefit of trusting a friend’s testimony over the accumulated evidence engenders an obligation to give the friend the benefit of the doubt.”

They also identify two mechanisms by which this happens. One they call “evidence criterion shifting”, whereby one has a social obligation to discount, or more heavily weight, certain types of evidence, provided it licenses the morally desirable belief. The other is termed “alternative justification”, in which the moral considerations are weighed directly against the evidence (and may outweigh them).

A moral imperative for favouritism?

These findings help explain why favouritism is so persistent. We use the moral rules we have adopted to license us to interpret available evidence in a motivated manner in line with them: we owe our associates the benefit of the doubt, and ought to evaluate evidence in the most positive way. We are advocate and judge at the same time. Furthermore, we even use these rules to form beliefs that are not at all supported by evidence. If someone is a relative, a friend, or shares membership of a morally significant group, they must be a good person (since we would not associate with bad people), and that may outweigh any evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the most striking finding is that this is, by and large, a prescriptive norm we hold: we don’t just adopt it ourselves, but we think others too should discount evidence in favour of moral rules.

When we hold a belief — even if it is morally motivated — acting accordingly is but a small step. This feeds our inclination to protect people to whom we feel a moral obligation of loyalty and trust, sometimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence. And if we have the opportunity to physically intervene — legitimately, or not so legitimately — only an even higher moral power will prevent us from using it.

We may decry the favouritism and clientelism of politicians. But unless we treat politicians from all parties equally, and in the same way we would treat our best friend or closest relative, we are exhibiting the very flavour of morally motivated reasoning that we are criticizing. Human nature is hard to fight…

Originally published at on January 29, 2021.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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