A Cross-Cultural Study of the Effect of Empathy on the Moral Judgment of Distributive Justice Principles: Need Versus Equity
Cai, Deborah A.
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This dissertation research examined how cultures differ in the use of the distributive justice principles of need and equity. Empathy was proposed as a possible mechanism to explain cultural differences in the conflict between the ethics of care and justice as reflected in the use of the need and equity principles. Four experiments were conducted to investigate the role of empathy in three distinct distribution situations across two cultural groups, Chinese nationals and U.S. Americans. In all four studies, participants were asked to assume the role of a high-status person and make a distribution decision in a questionnaire. The first and second studies examined how empathy affected the equity principle in a bonus distribution situation in a company; the third study explored how empathy influenced the need principle in an assistance-fund distribution situation in a charity organization; and the fourth study investigated how empathy affected the choice between merit and need in a scholarship distribution situation in a university. Data were collected in both China and the U.S. for each of the four studies (total N = 1,022). Results indicated a significant moderating effect of culture such that empathy had different effects on the principles of equity and need in the two cultural groups. Empathy narrowed the money gap between low- and high-competence employees for Chinese, but maintained the gap for U.S. Americans; it also equalized the amount of money given to low- and high-need applicants for Chinese, but preserved the difference for U.S. Americans. Interpretations and implications of the results are provided, and the methodological and theoretical significance of the research along with future directions are discussed.