Hand holding American hundred dollar bills with a rubberband wrapped around the bills.
Photo by 401(K) 2012, Flickr CC

The heated condemnation of celebrities and business leaders in the recent Varsity Blues Scandal reveals how indifference to apparently harmless donations can transform into massive condemnation of a crime. In a recent study of moral reactions to questionable transactions, researchers Oliver Schilke and Gabriel Rossman asked people to rate their disapproval to dubious exchanges taking place under varying scenarios. Reactions varied according to the social context and components of the transaction, even when goods and the traders involved in the negotiation remained the same.

Schilke and Rossman created several vignettes describing real-world experiences, including political bribery, commercial bribery, and selling a baby. For example, in one of the vignettes a couple reaches out to a new mother with several types of offers in order to adopt her baby. In the first scenario, the couple and the mother undertake a quid pro quo arrangement, in which the couple compensates the mother with $10,000. In alternative scenarios, the couple conceals the monetary exchange by offering to pay off the medical costs of the delivery (pawning) or by buying the mother’s car for several times its real value (gift exchange). The couple still paid $10,000 in each scenario.

A different vignette describes the story of a defense contractor that asks a congressman to endorse his company’s equipment for testing by the Army. The quid pro quo exchange describes that the lobbyists offers $10,000 directly for the endorsement. In an alternative scenario, the defense contractor ‘suggests’ that the company expects compensation for previous contributions in past political campaigns.

Research participants rated the vignettes and the scenarios based on a 7-point scale of moral disapproval. As expected, respondents expressed more disapproval of direct payments than to the alternative scenarios. However, three factors lessened this disapproval:

  • First, people soften their reactions in scenarios when there is a lack of clarity about the exchangers’ real intentions (attributional opacity).
  • Second, moral disapproval declines when the acts of giving and receiving are distant in time (perceived transactionalism).
  • Finally, respondents lessened their disapproval when they believed the exchange wouldn’t provoke general disapproval in the population (collective validity).

Respondents also declared different levels of disapproval to the giver and the receiver in the transaction. For example, respondents empathized with the couple for their desire to raise a child, but they condemned the mother for giving the baby away. The stigma in illicit exchanges is likely to be more connected with traders’ roles and statuses in the transaction than with the nature of the good itself.

The line between acceptable and unacceptable exchanges is a gray area. This study reveals that people’s reactions towards transactions involving non-market goods, such as babies, democratic decisions, and college education, depends on social expectations and how people perceive the intentions and reciprocity of the exchange. In the midst of the massive scandals in college admissions, social science offers useful guidelines to understand societies’ moral values.