I've researched three major questions regarding morality. First, what is morality's role in how we evaluate others? My research suggests that morality trumps nearly all other factors when evaluating whether you like, respect, and truly understand someone--more so than competence or sociability (Hartley et al., 2016, SPPS). The second question I examined is how people differ in how they perceive morality in others. My colleagues and I examined whether individuals have different “lenses” in which they process, think about, and form judgments of morality. Third, I examined how a person's moral behavior is related to their personality and the situations they encounter. To this end, my colleagues and I have conducted experimental work, electronic sampling studies, and observational repeated measures studies examining how people’s moral behavior (e.g., honesty) changes across situations.
Much of my research has focused on how people form informal impressions about others’ behavior, and how these processes are influenced by the formal personality assessments widely used in research and practice. A growing body of social cognition research demonstrates that people's impressions are situated and adaptive: In other words, when people form judgments of personality, they take into account how people behave in specific situations. Likewise, in the field of personality, researchers increasingly conceptualize behavior as varying meaningfully across situations and over time. Nevertheless, the assessments widely used by psychologists and researchers to assess personality do not take into account situations people encounter and their responses to them: Instead, these assessments are designed to measure overall "summaries" of personality.
To examine this issue, I developed a novel experimental computer paradigm that presents participants with social stimuli that range in salience (e.g., text, audio, or video vignettes) and depict everyday social interactions (e.g., situations and a target’s reactions to those situations). This program systematically manipulates the probabilities of two distinct factors that contribute to overall behavior: the type and frequency of social situations the target encounters (e.g., provocation), and the target’s conditional reactions (e.g., if provoked, then agreeable).
This paradigm has clarified that people naturalistically form judgments about behavior in a situated manner, and that their inferences can be shaped by the formal personality assessments researchers ask them to use. Additionally, my research has also revealed that summary and contextual assessments can yield meaningful, yet diverging conclusions about personality change (see Hartley, Wright, Zakriski, & Banducci, 2013, Journal of Psychology; Hartley & Wright, unpublished manuscript).
Are clinical psychologists more skilled than lay people at understanding and detecting behavioral patterns? Past research has cast doubt on the value of clinical expertise and has shown that clinical predictions made by professionals are often inferior to actuarial, statistical computer methods that do not involve human judgment. This raises the possibility that clinical experience and training has little effect on how social perceivers judge behavior and that people of all levels of expertise have difficulty with such tasks. Despite these well documented shortcomings, it is possible that experienced clinical experts can detect situational patterns of behavior as long as they are given the proper assessment tool that would facilitate this level of processing.
With my colleagues at Brown, Connecticut College, and Wediko Children's Services, I conducted an experimental study that examined differences between novice and expert clinical staff at a residential treatment setting in their ability to assess behavior change. A major finding that emerged from this work is that summary assessments did not reveal differences between expert and novice staff in their ability to detect situation-specific patterns of change. However, when using contextual assessment methods that focus on reactions to situations, experts showed greater sensitivity to situation-specific changes in behavior that novices overlooked. Therefore, experienced clinical staff are more sensitive than novices to situation-specific patterns of behavior as long as they are given the appropriate assessment that will engage this sensitivity (see Hartley, Wright, Zakriski, & McCarthy, 2014, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment).
My past research has used contextual approach to better understand the robust, yet poorly understood phenomenon of informant discrepancies: when two informants (e.g., parent and teacher) differ in their behavioral ratings for a given child. Widely used summary assessments used in research and clinical practice demonstrate that informants disagree, but do not reveal why. My research in this area suggests that assessing children’s behavior in specific situations can help clarify why they disagree and reveal each informant’s unique, context-specific knowledge of the child’s behavior (Hartley, Zakriski, & Wright, 2011, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology).
I have continued my research on cross-informant agreement at my current position at Wake Forest on The Character Project, where I examine cross-informant agreement between judges on personality traits and moral behavior. To this end, I have examined self-other agreement, inter-judge agreement, and agreement between judges and individual's meta-perceptions of personality.
Since 2007, I worked with my colleagues Jack Wright and Audrey Zakriski on the Wediko Transitions Project, a multi-year study of child behavior change in response to residential treatment. Our research suggests that a contextual approach to assessment can reveal important patterns of behavior change over time that are not revealed by widely used summary measures. The predominant approach to studying behavior change has been to measure overall behavior using difference scores from summary assessments. However, in recent work my colleagues and I demonstrated that even if the overall rate of children’s behavior remains constant, they can show diverse changes in their behavior in response to the social situations they encounter. These field studies demonstrate how assessing situation-specific behavior can reveal a more fine-grained picture of personality and better predict which changes will carry over to new settings (e.g., home and school) (Wright, Zakriski, Hartley, & Parad, 2011, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment; Zakriski, Wright, Metcalf, Choukas-Bradley, Hartley & Parad, under review).