Cross-cultural Differences In Vicarious Responsibility

Guilty by Cultural Association:
Cross-cultural Differences in Vicarious Responsibility
People who transgress can obviously experience negative moral emotions like guilt and
shame. So too, however, can people who are socially connected to a transgressor, especially
when the transgressor comes from their in-group (Johns, Schmader, &Lickel, 2005; Lickel,
Schmader, Curtis, Scarnier, & Ames, 2005). Thus, following a criminal act, a criminal’s friends
and relatives suffer negative social outcomes, even when they had no hand in the act. How far
these negative reactions extend, however, is an open question. Do a criminal’s connections suffer
true emotional trauma, or can they distance and differentiate themselves from their transgressing
counterpart?Perceptions and reactions to such events, in which people are psychologically
connected but not personally responsible, represent important, under-studied issues.
The current research investigates the influence of cultural identity on people’s responses
to the failure of a cultural compatriot, i.e., a stranger with whom a focal individual shares a
national culture. Specifically, we examine the influence of national culture on people’s
experience of vicarious responsibility and moral emotions, following a cultural compatriot’s
transgression.Drawing from models of the self and group identification, we predicted that other
people’s transgressions would have a stronger impact on individuals from Eastern cultures than
those from Western cultures, and that vicarious responsibility would mediate the effects of
culture on intended future behaviors.
We tested our hypotheses in a Western culture (the U.S.) and an East Asian culture
(South Korea), and also with a group of East Asians residing in the U.S. Study 1 tested our
hypotheses in the U.S. and South Korea. In Study 2, a field study, we recruited participants
fromAmerican and Koreanchurches in the Chicago area, allowing us to hold constant several
cultural elements that could threaten the validity of a cross-cultural comparison constant (e.g.,
climate, the economy, the political system). Finally, Study 3 was a controlled experiment at a
single American university where wemanipulated rather than measured cultural connections,
providing an opportunity to draw causal conclusions. Collectively, these studiessuggest that
culture plays an important role in shaping vicarious responsibility and moral emotions after a
cultural compatriot’s failure.This research also shows that feelings of vicarious responsibility
influence individuals’behavioral intentions to maintain their moral self-image via charitable
action, and possibly via moral cleansing.
Theoretically, prior research has documented the effects that culture has on moral
attributions and group-based emotions, but the current research is among the first to specifically
investigate vicarious responsibility and moral emotions, and to test the behavioral implications of
these feelings.Practically, our results may help to transcend or at least explain cultural
misunderstandings in the wake of transgressions. From Toyota’s unexpected acceleration issues
to the recent stabbing of the American Ambassador to South Korea, transgressions in Eastern
nations have seemed to prompt national outpourings of emotion that sometimes strike
Westerners as unusual. By the same token, the lack of national outpourings following
transgressions in Western nations may strike many Easterners as unusual. By helping to explain
the source of these differences, we hope that our results may help to transcend the associated
cultural misunderstandings.
Key words: culture; guilt, reparative behavior; shame; vicarious moral emotions; vicarious