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A recent study conducted by sociologists Jan E. Stets of UC Riverside and Michael J. Carter of Cal State Northridge has proposed a possible link between a person’s behavior and their moral standards. The study digresses from wide spread beliefs that center on the influence of cultural forces on one’s moral inclinations. The authors believe that their study may help account for the actions of hedge fund managers and other financial actors that helped bring about the recent economic crisis.The study, “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality,” explains that the way people view themselves can affect their daily behaviors and habits. According to the sociologists, people who have a low moral identity are more likely to engage in forbidden behavior than those with a high moral identity. “Sociology has seen a renewed interest in the study of morality. However, a theory of the self that explains individual variation in moral behavior and emotions is noticeably absent. In this study, we use identity theory to explain this variability,” states the study, which probed participants’ moral standards and their link with actual behavior.

“It is an interesting explanation [regarding] behavior that we might consider immoral in the greater context of society. But, I would like to know if identity can change. Also, if certain behaviors are more challenged by individuals of low moral identity versus those of higher moral identity,” states Chin Kohr, a fifth-year biochemistry major. Stets and Carter conducted a case study in which they surveyed a diverse number of students and measured their self-described moral attributes.The experiment was divided into two parts. The first part was a survey that measured each student’s moral identity, emotions and behavior.  Students were asked to recall different situations that they had encountered in which they had the opportunity to do the right or wrong thing. This section included questions regarding scenarios involving cheating on tests, drunk driving, stealing, giving to charity, letting a friend drive home drunk, returning a lost item and returning extra money accidentally given by a cashier.

The second survey, which was taken three months later, measured the aftermath of the students’ moral feelings after they had taken the initial survey. This portion demonstrated a correlation between the students’ moral behavior and the way they view themselves. Students who answered that they would return a lost item or return money to a cashier in the first survey are believed to carryout these actions in real life.  Stets and Carter used the data they gathered from this experiment to create a theory behind the mindset of businessmen that caused the recession. They believe that these businessmen were able to commit certain acts with low levels of self guilt because they have a low moral level.

“Bankers, stock brokers, and mortgage lenders who caused the recession were able to act as they did, without shame or guilt, perhaps because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behavior that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues,” says Stets in an interview with UCR Today.

Stets and Carter’s theory regarding the behavior and moral processes of these businessmen have been viewed favorably by students. “I think the theory of moral self and its relationship with our current economic problems based on the acts of the bankers, stock brokers and mortgage lenders is correct. When people think of Wall Street they always bring up words that describe them as “sharks” or “cheaters” [and] they are known for that and it’s probably why that they felt it was okay to do what they did because it was accepted, even though disgraced,” says Thuyvu Pham, a third-year business administration major.