Personality, Identity, and Crime – Independent Research Group

Personality, Identity, and Crime

Independent Research Group

The research group “Personality, Identity, and Crime” focuses on individual differences in (un)ethical and prosocial vs. antisocial behavior. Prior research consistently shows that people differ in their moral understanding, their moral identity, and their actual moral behavior. Our research resorts to diverse and innovative methodology to ob­tain a better understanding of the interplay between self-perception, other-perception, identity, and behavior in the context of moral vs. immoral – including criminal – behavior. We particularly focus on the questions how and which personality traits can account for these individual differences and how these differences shape future be­hav­ior and personality development. Ultimately, our goal is to promote theory development in psychology and criminology and to further bridge the gap between these two research traditions.

Photo: © Tikhonova

Research Topics

Self-knowledge and the Desire to Change One’s Personality

The desire to change is an important requirement for volitional personality change. Especially when it comes to mo­ral­ity-related traits, however, people rarely see a need to change for the better, that is, to become more moral. This is be­cause most people have an overly positive self-image about their own morality, that is, they think of themselves as rel­a­tively moral compared to others although they do not always behave accordingly. In our research, we examine whether – and, if so, how – tailored interventions for increasing self-knowledge about one’s own morality can be used to instill desires to change for the better in the moral domain. Our initial findings show that feedback about one’s own morality can be a useful means to motivate people to become more moral in the future. Based on this evidence, we study dif­fer­ent approaches for increasing self-knowledge and their effect on actual moral behavior and personality development. 

Key publications:

Casali, N., Metselaar, C., & Thielmann, I. (2024). Personality feedback as an intervention to encourage positive changes on moral traits. Identity. doi:10.1080/15283488.2024.2340488
Thielmann, I., & De Vries, R. E. (2021). Who wants to change and how? On the trait-specificity of personality change goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(5), 1112–1139. doi:10.1037/pspp0000304

Personality and Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behaviors such as fairness, cooperation, trust, and trustworthiness are among the most important building blocks of harmonious social relationships and well-functioning societies. However, prosocial behavior is often associ­ated with (short-term) individual costs, for example, the investment of time and money. It is therefore less surprising that there are strong individual differences in the tendency to act in prosocial ways: Whereas some people willingly take on individual costs to benefit others, other people are primarily interested in maximizing their own personal profit and do not shy away from exploiting others. With our research, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of such individ­ual differences in prosocial behavior. In this regard, we primarily focus on the interplay between different personality traits with characteristics of situations affording prosocial actions.

Key publications:

Popov, N., & Thielmann, I. (2024). The core tendencies underlying prosocial behavior: Testing a person-situation framework. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12957
Thielmann, I., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2022). The dispositional basis of human prosociality. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 289–294. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.08.009
Thielmann, I., Spadaro, G., & Balliet, D. (2020). Personality and prosocial behavior: A theoretical framework and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 146(1), 30–90. doi:10.1037/bul0000217

Third-party funded project:

Criminal Behavior and Personality

Prior research in psychology and criminology has linked different personality traits to criminal behavior. This evidence, however, remains largely heterogenous and unsystematic and there is a lack of a more comprehensive understanding about which personality traits relate to which types of criminal behavior – and why. Our research aims to close this gap. Specifically, our goal is to develop and empirically test a theoretical framework on the link between criminal behavior and personality using diverse and innovative methods – which has important implications for both (personality) psychology and criminology.

Key publications:

Thielmann, I. (2023). (Re)considering personality in criminological research. Crime and Justice, 52(1), 395–445. doi:10.1086/726781

Relation between Self-perception and Other-perception

In our everyday social interactions, we are regularly required to judge what others, including strangers, are like. But how do we form such judgments? In our research, we study the influence of judges’ own personality traits on how they per­ceive others. Specifically, we target the phenomenon of assumed similarity which describes the observation that people perceive others as somewhat similar to themselves. Prior research has shown that assumed similarity is particularly ro­bust for characteristics that are related to universal values, which also includes morality-related traits. We aim to gain a better understanding of the boundary conditions and underlying psychological processes of these assumed similarity effects as well as of the consequences that assumed similarity in the moral domain have for ethical vs. unethical and criminal behavior. 

Key publications:

Thielmann, I., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2020). Seeing me, seeing you: Testing competing accounts of assumed similarity in personality judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(1), 172–198. doi:10.1037/pspp0000222
Thielmann, I., Rau, R., & Locke, K. D. (2023). Trait-specificity versus global positivity: A critical test of alternative sources of assumed similarity in personality judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(4), 828–847. doi:10.1037/pspp0000420


KNOW-THYSELF: Increasing Self-Knowledge to Promote Moral Behavior

The functioning of societies and the quality of social relationships heavily de­pend on moral behaviors such as fair­ness, cooperation, and honesty, whereas immoral behaviors such as exploitation, dishonesty, and fraud come at tremen­dous societal cost. A long-standing issue in the social and behavioral sciences thus pertains to the ques­tion: how can we promote moral and… more

The Core Tendencies Underlying Individual Differences in Prosocial Behavior

Why are some people willing to help others but other people are (rather) not? Why do some people prefer to coop­er­ate with others whereas others are willing to exploit their interaction partners for personal gain? The project “The core tendencies underlying in­di­vid­ual differences in prosocial behavior,” which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), addresses… more

Individual Differences in Selective Prosociality

Individuals select who they want to be prosocial towards. This is backed up by a longstanding literature showing that humans have the tendency to be prosocial towards certain people or groups rather than others. Yet, sur­pris­ingly, up until this point, no research has systematically investigated individual differences in selective proso­cial­ity. Why are some individuals more… more

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