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Generalized morality culturally evolves as an adaptive heuristic in large social networks.

Why do people assume that a generous person should also be honest? Why do we even use words like "moral" and "immoral"? We explore these questions with a new model of how people perceive moral character. We propose that people vary in the extent to which they perceive moral character as "localized" (varying along many contextually embedded dimensions) versus "generalized" (varying along a single dimension from morally bad to morally good). This variation might be partly the product of cultural evolutionary adaptations to different kinds of social networks. As networks grow larger, perceptions of generalized morality are increasingly valuable for predicting cooperation during partner selection, especially in novel contexts. Our studies show that social network size correlates with perceptions of generalized morality in United States and international samples (Study 1) and that East African hunter-gatherers with greater exposure outside their local region perceive morality as more generalized compared to those who have remained in their local region (Study 2). We support the adaptive value of generalized morality in large and unfamiliar social networks with an agent-based model (Study 3), and in experiments where we manipulate partner unfamiliarity (Study 4). Our final study shows that perceptions of morality have become more generalized over the last 200 years of English-language history, which suggests that it may be coevolving with rising social complexity and anonymity in the English-speaking world (Study 5). We discuss the implications of this theory for the cultural evolution of political systems, religion, and taxonomical theories of morality. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).

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