Immorality East and West: Are Immoral Behaviors Especially Harmful, or Especially Uncivilized?

Emma E. Buchtel, Yanjun Guan, Qin Peng, Yanjie Su, Biao Sang, Sylvia Xiaohua Chen, Michael Harris Bond

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

84 Citations (Scopus)


What makes some acts immoral? Although Western theories of morality often define harmful behaviors as centrally immoral, whether this is applicable to other cultures is still under debate. In particular, Confucianism emphasizes civility as fundamental to moral excellence. We describe three studies examining how the word immoral is used by Chinese and Westerners. Layperson-generated examples were used to examine cultural differences in which behaviors are called “immoral” (Study 1, n = 609; Study 2, n = 480), and whether “immoral” behaviors were best characterized as particularly harmful versus uncivilized (Study 3, N = 443). Results suggest that Chinese were more likely to use the word immoral for behaviors that were uncivilized, rather than exceptionally harmful, whereas Westerners were more likely to link immorality tightly to harm. More research into lay concepts of morality is needed to inform theories of moral cognition and improve understanding of human conceptualizations of social norms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1382-1394
Number of pages13
JournalPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 19 Oct 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • culture
  • lay concepts
  • lay prototypes
  • morality
  • virtue ethics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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