Immorality east and west: Are immoral behaviors especially harmful, or especially uncivilized?

Emma Ellen Kathrina BUCHTEL, Yanjun GUAN, Qin PENG, Yanjie SU, Biao SANG, Sylvia Xiaohua CHEN, Michael Harris BOND

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33 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. Copyright © 2015 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1382-1394
JournalPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Issue number10
Early online dateAug 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015



Buchtel, E. E., Guan, Y., Peng, Q., Su, Y., Sang, B., Chen, S. X., et al. (2015). Immorality east and west: Are immoral behaviors especially harmful, or especially uncivilized?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(10), 1382-1394.


  • Morality
  • Culture
  • Lay prototypes
  • Lay concepts
  • Virtue ethics