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Applying Identity Theory to Moral Acts of Commission and Omission

Advances in Group Processes

ISBN: 978-0-85724-773-5, eISBN: 978-0-85724-774-2

Publication date: 17 November 2011


This research uses identity theory to examine the individual variability in moral behavior for acts of commission (committing a bad act) and omission (failing to do a good act). Most research using identity theory has examined behavior in the active sense as in doing something while neglecting behavior in the passive sense as in not doing something. Doing something may carry more information as to who one is than not doing something. Thus, behavior in the active sense may be more likely to implicate the self and thus activate the identity process than behavior in the passive sense. I investigate this by placing individuals in the moral dilemma of a testing situation in which they have the opportunity to cheat (an act of commission) (Condition 1) or not report that they were over-scored on a test (an act of omission) (Condition 2). Participants' moral identities and emotions are obtained. The results reveal that the identity process helps explain moral behavior and emotions for an act of commission but not an act of omission. The results suggest that compared to an omitted act, a committed act generates more cognitive processing as to who one is thereby activating the identity process. Furthermore, in omission, individuals may not see themselves as responsible for an outcome, thus failing to frame the situation in moral terms – as having done a bad thing.


Stets, J.E. (2011), "Applying Identity Theory to Moral Acts of Commission and Omission", Thye, S.R. and Lawler, E.J. (Ed.) Advances in Group Processes (Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 28), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 97-124.



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