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How Does Categorising Our Relationships Impact Moral Judgements? A Social Psychology Podcast Episode.

How Does Categorising Our Relationships Impact Moral Judgements? A Social Psychology Podcast Episode.

Recently, I’ve been focusing a lot more on the psychology behind morality and what makes humans do “right” and “wrong” behaviours. A part of our morality is how we divide people up into different categories based on our relationship to them. This is a fascinating area of social psychology that I highly recommend you listen to today because you’ll definitely learn a lot and you’ll be thinking for sure. Therefore, in this social psychology podcast episode, you’ll see the four types of different relationships people have, what these relationships involve and most importantly, how do these relationships impact moral dilemmas. If you enjoy learning about social relationships, decision-making and morality then you’ll love today’s episode.

This episode has been sponsored by Psychology of Relationships: The Social Psychology of Friendships, Romantic Relationships and More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.

How Could Relationships Impact Morality?

Now, I’ll fully admit when I came across this research I wasn’t entirely convinced that different types of relationships might impact different moral behaviours. Then I started thinking about it and I realised just how common this is. For example, two easy examples are, when I go out with a university friend of mine for dinner and it’s the two of us, we both pay for our own dinners. That’s what happens whenever I go out with friends to be honest. Yet I am willing to pay for the dinner of my closest friends because I’m closer to them and they’re great.

Whereas, if I’m having lunch with my friend that is also my supervisor (or will be in the future) at my University’s Parkinson’s centre, I have absolutely no ethical problems with letting him pay for my lunch. He has the job and I help him out a lot so it is sort of only fair.

In that example, you can see three different examples of relationships and how I approach the very common idea of paying for a meal differently.

Are these really moral behaviours?

If you had asked me before this podcast episode, I would have said these basic examples have nothing to do with morality, but some researchers disagree. Especially because morality is all about what behaviours are right and wrong in a given situation. I’m sure some of you would say I shouldn’t want my supervisor to always pay (granted we don’t go out for lunch that often and I do not abuse that kind offer), but some of you would agree.

Then when we start thinking about additional factors, this gets more complex. For example, what if my friend is poor and struggles with money? Should I automatically pay for their dinners to help them out? Or what if I was struggling with money for a time? Is it morally right for me to ask my friend to pay me dinner so I could eat that night?

Some of you would say yes, others would say that was an immoral favour to ask.

That’s why this is a great topic to look at.

What Are The Four Types of Relationships And How Do These Impact Morality?

Looking at the work of anthropologist Alan Fiske (1991), he categorises human relationships into four different types.

Firstly, you have communal sharing relationships where our ingroups are basically the same as us in relevant ways. Some examples of this would include teams at work, military units as well as our family.

Secondly, you have equality matching. These are relationships where we view others as our equals. Like, people who we take turns with at home or work, or people we take care to maintain our impartiality with. I know this one is a little complicated, but don’t worry, I’ll explain these categories in more detail in a moment.

Thirdly, you have authority ranking where we rank ourselves and others in a hierarchy or to a position. For instance, caste, work titles or seniority.

Finally, you have market pricing where we view others as a trade partner. These are people we view through a contractual lens. For example, people who we interact with because they help us because we help them and vice versa.

As a result of these categories, Rai and Fiske (2011) argue humans are motivated to behave differently toward each of these categories. And one example of this is we’re happy to share resources with our family members but we get annoyed when a friend keeps asking us for stuff without a thank you, them spending time to cultivate our friendship and without reciprocating the favour.

Now, let’s explore these in more depth.

Communal Sharing and Morality

When it comes to communal sharing relationships, these focus on an attitude of unity towards the ingroup. Since as we all know, maintaining any ingroup is not easy at times and there will be problems. Therefore, there is high motivation to maintain the ingroup because the people in the ingroup want to benefit the group over and beyond people outside the ingroup.

Due to ingroup members believe they have a common fate, which they want to be positive. Therefore, maintaining communal relationships relies on tribalism and in a sense keeping the tribe “pure”. Resulting in ingroup members being morally motivated to eliminate these threats, even if they come at a very high moral price.

Interestingly, an international example of this communal sharing that Rai and Fiske (2011) mention is the Hutu Ten Commandments that mention how the unity as well as the fate of the Hutu people are perceived to be threatened by the Tutsi. Resulting in this fuelling propaganda that led to the Rwandan genocide.

A more personal example would be family attitudes towards kicking out LGBT+ members of the family. I know from personal experience and stories with friends how family units want to remain united and pure so there is minimal conflict that leads to family breakdown. So sometimes the easiest option is just to kick out the queer member of the family, making them homeless and completely cut off from the family.

Notice how I never said the easy option is the moral option?

It’s disgusting but some families are just immoral.

Equality Matching and Morality

Our next type of relationship is focused on striking equal balances, which leads to a lot of positive ideas about morality. For example, human rights are thankfully all about treating other people as equals, governments should always treat people with dignity and respect, as well as we should treat others how we want to be treated.

In addition, striking an equal balance helps humans to cooperate in situations where we can’t distribute resources equally or when it comes to taking turns.

Originally, we evolved these rules to limit free-riders because no one likes them at all. So this led to humanity developing some very elegant cooperation norms, like tit-for-tat so we can all generally trust each other in our economic and social interactions.

These norms generally work because people are motivated to maintain these rules and equality, because acting immorally or against these rules, results in punishment.

I always like reading anthropology research from time to time because you get to learn about random tribes. Hence, the Hammurabi’s code reflects the extreme lengths people can go to protect this balance, as does the ancient Babylonia ideal of an eye for an eye. Even today, there are many countries that continue to institutionalise balance-keeping by the process of capital punishment. A life for a life.

We could have an entire moral debate about the concept of “a life for a life” but I’ve already had that debate with some 15-year-old children this week, so I’m good and we generally understand how capital punishment and balance-keeping informs morality.

Authority Ranking And Moral Judgements

Whereas in these social relationships, people are motivated to maintain a hierarchy regardless of its type. This involves people respecting and deferring to an authority figure and this authority figure should provide protection and take responsibility to some extent for the subordinates’ actions.

The easiest example of this is the military as well as military command structure and units.

Normally, this hierarchy and social relationship is beneficial for everyone involved. Since if we take a parental example, then a parent can demand respect from their young and vulnerable children. In exchange, the parent not only protects their children from harm but the parent comes to the child’s defence too.

As you can see, it’s useful for encouraging moral behaviour.

Unfortunately, this social relationship can cause immoral behaviour as well. For instance, people in leadership positions are often thought to be more entitled to the group’s resources than other people. Like, CEOs having bigger offices, extra benefits and larger paychecks. I won’t even get into that argument about whether this is moral or not. I think it depends.

Anyway, leaders can become corrupt and authoritarian too. Then if we remember Milgram’s experiments, we realise subordinates are willing to follow extreme orders from authority figures even if it harms other people.

That is definitely not moral behaviour.

Market Pricing Impacting Moral Judgements

Our final type of social relationship comes from Market Pricing and these relationships are maintained by an in-between system of value to compare different goods. I get that was a weird explanation but what it means is this relationship is essentially an economic market where the people in these relationships are motivated to maintain proportionality.

In other words, make sure each other is providing equal value.

These economic principles can extend to the social world too, because when good and evil behaviours are weighed against each other, this is what people use to determine the best course of action.

If we look at the criminal justice system, juries have to decide how much time a criminal should spend in prison in relation to the seriousness of the crime, we expect a system of meritocracy at work where the promotion or pay rise goes to the most deserving employee, and commanders are meant to determine how many lost lives are worth an action for the greater good.

How Do These Categories Mix and Conclusion

It’s hard to think of any social relationships that are only one of these four types of relationships because there is a lot of overlap. For instance, if we think about dividing up a bill after a nice dinner, this is hard because going out with friends could be Equality Matching (because we want equal friendships) and it could be Communal Sharing to be honest. Or if you’re out for dinner with a supervisor/ friend, it could be Authority Ranking, Equality Matching and Marketing Pricing.

On the whole, the entire point of today’s episode is to show you that moral outrage as well as feelings get hurt because of these different types of relationships. Especially when they don’t match your expectations.

For example, I know a lot of great trans people and a part of medical transitioning are different surgeries if they want them. Therefore, if a friend of mine had a surgery with a six-week recovery time and I helped them out for the majority of that time. And I would feel really good because I helped out my friend and I did the right moral thing in this situation. Then I would be working on the assumption, this was a communal Sharing relationship because they’re part of my ingroup and the common fate of the friendship group is tied together.

Then let’s say if I later received an email and a bank transfer from my friend repaying me for my time and the email contained a list of the amount they were paying me for each thing I did for them.

This would be deeply hurtful because this friend would be categorising our friendship as a Market Pricing relationship instead of what I believed it to be.

Of course, this example has and will never happen, but similar hurt feelings have happened before to me. And this example is a good one showing how we categorise relationships impact our moral judgements. Because I’ll tell you now I would never go above and beyond for a Market Pricing relationship in comparison to Communal Sharing relationship.

And this is a great little thinking exercise because we all have examples of these four relationships in our lives, so ask yourself this simple question:

How far would your moral behaviour go for the people in each type of relationship? Because there’s a big difference between paying for a cheap dinner and being close enough to someone to want to spend six weeks with them after an operation.

What do you think?


If you want to learn more, please check out:

Psychology of Relationships: The Social Psychology of Friendships, Romantic Relationships and More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.

Have a great day.

Clinical Psychology References

Fiske, A. P. (1991). Structures of social life: The four elementary forms of human relations: Communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, market pricing. Free Press.

Fiske, A. P., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., pp. 915–981). McGraw-Hill.

Rai, T. S., & Fiske, A. P. (2011). Moral psychology is relationship regulation: moral motives for unity, hierarchy, equality, and proportionality. Psychological review, 118(1), 57.

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