PhD Defence: Something to Rely On - The Influence of Stable and Fleeting Drivers on Moral Behavior

In his dissertation ‘Something to Rely On: The Influence of Stable and Fleeting Drivers on Moral Behavior’ ERIM’s Gijs van Houwelingen investigates the influence of short-lived influences (fleeting drivers) on long-term goals and commitments (stable drivers), and creates a construal measure to determine the situation-sensitivity of our cognition. Gijs demonstrates that low construal settings enhance the influence of fleeting drivers and high construal settings enhance the influence of stable drivers in several moral dimensions.

Gijs defended his dissertation in the Senate Hall at Erasmus University Rotterdam on Friday, 9 January 2015. His supervisors were Professor David de Cremer and Professor Marius van Dijke. Other members of the Doctoral Committee included Professor Rob van Tulder (ERIM), Doctor Daan Stam (ERIM), Doctor Pieter Desmet (ESL).

About Gijs van Houwelingen

Gijs van Houwelingen (1985) was born in Middelburg, the Netherlands. He joined ERIM in 2010 as a first-generation ‘open PhD’ candidate. Before that, he obtained bachelor and master degrees (both cum laude) in both philosophy (Leiden University and VU University Amsterdam), as well as economics (VU University Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam).

His research is either published or under review at different important journals within organizational behaviour, among them Journal of Management, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and European Journal for Social Psychology. He is currently looking forward to start working in a non-academic function to be able to apply all his knowledge on ‘real world problems’ (but only after a well-deserved holiday).

Thesis Abstract

In virtually any situation we are bound to encounter short-lived influences that lure us to act in a certain way. The influence of such ‘fleeting drivers’ may or may not be in line our long-term goals and commitments (‘stable drivers’). Moral behaviour in particular often requires the ability to overcome the influence of fleeting drivers (e.g. self-interest) as well as to act on stable ones (e.g. moral principles). This dissertation is devoted to the question what determines the relative influence of both these types of influence upon our moral behaviours. I give a perhaps somewhat unlikely answer: cognitive abstraction, or ‘construal level’. Abstract cognition (high construal level) allows us to mentally disengage from the ‘here’ and ‘now’ and therefore quells the influence of fleeting drivers. Concrete cognition (low construal level), on the other hand, enhances the influence of fleeting drivers. High construal level is therefore associated with behaviour that is more strongly driver by abstract moral principles, such as moral norms. Low construal level is associated with behaviour that is more strongly driven by situational factors. I show this to be true for several different forms of moral behaviour, including cooperation, punishment and trust restoration.

Photos: Chris Gorzeman / Capital Images