Preprint Article Version 1 Preserved in Portico This version is not peer-reviewed

Moral Observer-Licensing in Cyberspace

Version 1 : Received: 14 March 2022 / Approved: 25 March 2022 / Online: 25 March 2022 (15:29:49 CET)

A peer-reviewed article of this Preprint also exists.

Ran, Y.; Hou, Y.; Dong, Z.; Wang, Q. Moral Observer-Licensing in Cyberspace. Behav. Sci. 2022, 12, 148. Ran, Y.; Hou, Y.; Dong, Z.; Wang, Q. Moral Observer-Licensing in Cyberspace. Behav. Sci. 2022, 12, 148.


Moral observer-licensing happens when people condone others’ morally questionable conducts due to their history of moral behaviors. We investigated in four studies (N = 808) this phenomenon in the context of cyberspace and its contributing factors and boundary conditions. Study 1 determined what participants perceived as typically moral and immoral behaviors in cyberspace. Then in Study 2, participants condemned less a story character’s online immoral behavior when they were informed of the character’s prior online moral behavior than when they were not, which indicates moral observer-licensing in cyberspace. Study 3 confirmed the presence of moral observer-licensing in cyberspace and further demonstrated that a character’s prior moral or immoral behavior online respectively reduces or intensifies the negativity of the character’s subsequent immoral behavior. Finally, Study 4 showed that participants who identified with the victim in a hypothetical scenario showed less forgiveness and more condemnation of a character’s immoral behavior than those who identified with the perpetrator or the bystander. These findings are of theoretical and practical significance for our understanding of cyber ethics.


Moral observer-licensing; Immoral behavior; Role involvement; Moral Credits Model; Internet; Social media


Social Sciences, Psychology

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