Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 23, 2018

How Women and Men’s Different Emotional Experiences Shape Moral Decisions

Image of man and woman sitting on floor, back-to-back, thinking

Negative stereotypes about women’s emotionality have persisted throughout history, leading to many damaging myths about their decision-making capacities in the social, professional, and political sphere.  Historically, women’s emotionality was also considered to undermine their ability to make moral decisions.  Women were often viewed as morally inferior to men because they based moral judgments on emotion rather than logic.  In stark contrast to this early view, we now know that self-conscious moral emotions, like guilt, are critical to moral judgment and moral behavior (1).  Importantly, though research shows that women are not, in fact, more emotional than men overall, there is evidence that women report higher proneness to experiencing guilt and shame (1, 2).

In a recent series of studies (3), my collaborator Laura King and I investigated a provocative idea:  Does women’s higher propensity to experience morally relevant emotions, like guilt and shame, lead them to have lower intentions to engage in immoral behaviors than men, who are less inclined to experience these emotions?

Moral Differences?

Aside from the early debates between Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan regarding the distinct considerations men and women have when making moral judgments, gender differences in morality have received limited attention within psychology.  Consequently, we have minimal knowledge of when women and men might differ in their approach to moral decision-making.  One notable exception to this is research on workplace contexts.  Several studies within the organizational literature indicate that compared to men, women report lower intentions to engage in morally questionable actions that provide personal or professional advantages but cause abstract harm, like lying during negotiations or bending rules to work in one’s favor (4, 5).  The reasons why men and women might differ in their intentions to engage in these behaviors remains largely unexamined.

We predicted that emotions are critical to understanding why these gender differences emerge.  Specifically, we anticipated that women’s lower intentions to engage in immoral behaviors would be explained by their higher experience of guilt and shame when imagining these actions.  We tested this prediction in a series of correlational and experimental studies.

Exploring Emotion

In correlational studies, we demonstrated that women’s tendency to experience guilt and shame when considering immoral actions, like lying on one’s taxes or resume, accounted for their higher condemnation of these actions as well as their lower intentions to engage in them.  Emotion accounted for gender differences in moral decision-making even when controlling for other potential explanations for these gender differences, including religiosity, moral identity, and impression management.

We also conducted a series of experiments to further pinpoint how emotional experiences contribute to gender differences in moral decision-making.  We expected that if guilt and shame account for women’s lower intentions to engage in immoral actions, then instructing women to ignore their negative emotions would make them report immoral intentions similar to men’s.  That is exactly what we found in two experiments. Although women exhibited lower intentions to engage in immoral behaviors than men in the control groups, after being instructed to ignore their emotions, women increased their immoral intentions, whereas men’s intentions were unchanged.  Subtle instructions to ignore emotions made women just as likely to say they would engage in immoral behaviors as men.

In a final experiment, we tested whether women and men differ in how guilty they feel about engaging in immoral actions for personal gain.  After people wrote about a time they did something immoral to get ahead at school or at work, women expressed more guilt, shame, and regret than men did.  Just as men’s lower guilt and shame proneness might encourage them to engage in more advantageous immoral actions than women, it appears they also feel less negatively when they reflect on their engagement in these behaviors.

These results do not imply that women are more moral than men, but they do highlight the need to better understand how gender differences in emotional dynamics might give rise to immoral behaviors in certain contexts.  Identifying the distinct considerations women and men might have when deciding if an immoral action is worth the risk could yield valuable insights into the broader interpersonal considerations that shape moral decisions.

Our findings upend the myth that women’s higher emotionality impairs moral decision-making, illuminating how women’s higher experience of self-conscious moral emotions can inhibit their willingness to engage in immoral behaviors for personal or professional gain.


Sarah Ward is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia Business School.  Her research interests include morality, meaning in life, and magical thinking.  You can find her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahwardsp or read more about her work at https://sites.google.com/view/sarahward/

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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