How Mobility Influences Moral Psychology

How Mobility Influences Moral Psychology

Image: Unsplash

According to the 2020 World Migration Report, there are an estimated 272 million international migrants globally, with about two-thirds of them being labor migrants. While 272 million is a small percentage of the world’s population (3.5%), meaning that the vast majority of people reside in the country in which they were born (96.5%), more people are migrating domestically. For instance, when it comes to the United States, in 2020, 29.8 million people reported living at a different residence one year ago. Over the past five years, a little over 40 million Americans, about 13% of the population, moved each year. The most common moves being within the same county (65% of all moves) or within the same state (17% of moves) in 2019.

Two forms of mobility that have been shown to have consequences on mind and behavior are relational and residential mobility. While both types of mobility are highly related, they are conceptually distinct. Residential mobility refers to the frequency with which people change residence, whereas relational mobility refers to the ease with which individuals can form new relationships and leave old ones within a given social context. Individuals and populations vary in residential and relational mobility. North America and European countries like Sweden, France, and the Netherlands exhibit higher levels of mobility and East Asian countries like Japan, China, and Hong Kong as well as many Arabic-speaking countries like Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia in North Africa exhibit lower levels of mobility.

Differences in mobility, whether that be at the societal, cultural, or individual level, influence psychology. Research has found that relational mobility levels are associated with variables such as justifiability of divorce, less importance placed on job security, residential mobility, and the number of romantic partners respondents had in the past. Relational mobility is also associated with cultural variables such as loose cultural norms, tolerance of diverse religious views, and independence.

Research has demonstrated that mobility influences our moral minds. Mobility influences perceptions of egalitarianism, the in-group vs. out-group distinction, and perception of social norm violations. Research has found that populations lower in mobility, such as East Asian countries, are more likely to punish inappropriate behavior than North Americans.

The link between residential mobility and stability and their differential effects on normative psychology is likely through the distinct types of social relationships they encourage. Individuals in highly mobile countries have looser relationship boundaries. And so, they can more freely and readily enter into and exit from a relationship (i.e., high relational mobility), a job (i.e., high job mobility), or a residence (i.e., high residential mobility). Generally, frequent movers tend to have more diffuse relationships with weaker ties compared to less mobile and more stable individuals who tend to have relationships with more responsibilities and obligations (see Luo et al., 2020). In stable societies, social ties are deep, and within social relationships people are obliged to help each other in times of need.

These differences in how relationships are structured, shift the norms surrounding social behaviors, which feedback on mind and behavior. For instance, increases in residential mobility increase the frequency of interactions with strangers, and frequent interactions with strangers may change the ways in which people trust, relate to, and cooperate with one another.

In mobile populations, people change residential locations, constantly come into contact with new people, and continually form new relationships over periods of time in which people from stable societies experience relative consistency. Therefore, residentially mobile populations are simply less able to sustain the strong relationships of stable societies with their attendant responsibilities and obligations. Thus, mobility reduces the strength of social ties that people have and lessens the tightness of social norms that people experience.

Additionally, residential mobility may affect psychology by shifting the centrality of the definition of self from social roles and contexts to personal traits. Individuals who find themselves in highly mobile contexts in contrast to stable ones, differentially adapt to their fluctuating residential environments. Their sense of identity is more likely to be tied to personal traits, skills, and abilities since their relationships and roles within them are continually evolving and being redefined. In contrast, stable individuals are enmeshed in social networks which they are obliged to uphold. In this context, people’s sense of self and identity highly overlap with their kinship and social ties.

Because social ties are deep, and friends are obliged to help each other in times of need, helping behavior may be relatively more costly in stable societies. In such societies, helpers may be expected to give more time and effort to others in their relationships relative to themselves. Perhaps because of the relative higher cost of helping in stable societies, more effort is placed on maintaining and monitoring existing friendships and more caution is taken in making new friendships to ensure that the person is trustworthy. This may translate to a more sensitive perception of social norm violations and a more punitive psychology when it comes to regulating social relationships and deterring inappropriate behavior among individuals in stable societies (see Luo et al., 2020).

One study found that compared to people in mobile societies, those in stable societies have a higher perception of norm violations. This may be to ensure that their friends are trustworthy and to avoid the punishment associated with deviant behavior. The researchers found that residential mobility affects social norm violations through two different perceptual components: decreasing sensitivity and decreasing the threshold to social norm violation.

It always fascinates me to learn about the ways in which seemingly non-psychological and counterintuitive factors shape mind and behavior. Residential and relational mobility are socioecological factors that exemplify the interaction between humans and their environment. They have downstream effects on normative psychology in ways that are not automatically obvious, similar to the influence of market economies on fairness and religion on prosocial behavior. A more complete understanding of morality and norms requires taking into account the ever-changing socioecological contexts within which humans live.