Study: The more heinous the crime, the more likely people will protect their loved ones

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There are certain crimes, such as sexual assault or child abuse, that immediately elicit a visceral reaction. In many of these cases, it comes to light that the perpetrator’s family or friends did absolutely nothing to report them to police once they became aware of their actions, and some even helped their loved ones cover up the crimes. While most people’s reaction to these stories is they would never fail to report such a crime, a new University of Michigan study finds that you may feel differently if it’s your own kin or close friend.

Researchers say that, in fact, people are much less likely to report crimes such as thievery, blackmail, or groping when a family member or close friend is the guilty party.

Perhaps even more troubling, the study concludes that as the severity of a crime increases, people actually become more protective of their loved ones. At the end of the day, most people just don’t want to sacrifice their relationship with the guilty party, regardless of society’s standards. Researchers say this finding was universal ever after accounting for factors like gender, political beliefs, personal beliefs, and even level of disgust.

For example, a mother discovers her son has been stealing from the elderly. While the mother is naturally ashamed and disgusted by her son’s actions, she will nonetheless work to protect her son from being discovered and convicted.

“We were really taken aback to see that most people predict that they will protect those close to them even in the face of heinous moral infractions,” comments study co-lead author Aaron Weidman, a psychology research fellow, in a release.

Weidman and his team utilized data collected from over 2,800 people across 10 previous studies. They looked to see if participants’ would be more or less likely to report acts of theft and sexual harassment depending on if the perpetrator was a stranger or a loved one. In one scenario, subjects were asked to imagine they had just been asked by a police officer if they had any information on a crime they had witnessed. Participants said they would be willing to lie, and subsequently break the law themselves, in order to protect a loved one. Conversely, if the imagined perpetuator was a stranger, participants said they wouldn’t hesitate to turn the individual in to law enforcement, and even ostracize them socially.

After looking into possible psychological explanations for these findings, researchers say that many people tell themselves they will discipline their loved one themselves, so there is no need to get formal law enforcement involved. This acts as a way for the individual to still consider themselves “moral,” while also maintaining their relationship with the guilty party.

“Loyalty is a powerful motivator that, under certain circumstances, can override other virtues like honesty.” says Walter Sowden, the study’s other lead author.

The research team also conducted two additional experiments, in which they asked participants to consider morally reprehensible crimes from a third-party perspective. When subjects took this approach, they were more likely to make an ethical decision and report a guilty loved one.

The study is published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.