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Don’t scratch the moral itch: restoring political image following a scandal

Everyone will appreciate how admirable it is for a ruler to keep his word and be honest rather than deceitful. However, in our own times we’ve had examples of leaders who’ve done great things without worrying too much about keeping their word. Outwitting opponents with their cunning, these men achieved more than leaders who behaved honestly. -Niccolò Machiavelli


The psychological literature highlights the dominance of morality in forming social judgments. However, in the political field, recent electoral victories by politicians involved in immoral behavior have shown that immorality does not end careers. Here, we demonstrate a strategy to explain scandalous politicians’ electoral success. In three experiments using both fictional and real politicians in various political settings, we show the effectiveness of a strategy emphasizing different image dimensions in mitigating the negative effects of a scandal. We find that scandal-hit candidates can effectively improve their image by shifting voters’ focus to any image dimension undamaged by scandal, including competence, warmth (studies 1–2), and even morality in undamaged moral foundations (studies 2–3), demonstrating that voters rely on a multi-dimensional model of moral image in appraising politicians. This suggests that politicians who morally transgress can repair their image and avoid accountability using positive messages—as long as they do not scratch the moral itch.

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  2. In all studies, we have tested the effects of the different texts on each of the image dimensions. In study 3, as well as pilot studies which included fictional candidates, we found that the texts managed to primarily increase evaluation of the relevant image dimensions (i.e., the competence text had the greatest effect on perceived competence, and the morality prime had the greatest effect on perceived morality). However, in studies on real-world politicians the effects were less distinguished: we found a halo effect for competence, which improved all three image dimensions, and that warmth and morality affected both the warmth image and morality image (not surprising considering the connection between the warmth and moral image dimension in the literature). Analysis of the effects on all image dimensions are detailed in the supplementary materials.

  3. In recent years, studies have shown that despite common criticism, MTurk samples can provide mostly representative samples for psychological research on political ideology (Clifford, Jewell and Waggoner, 2015). While these samples have ideological differences compared to nationally representative samples in the United States, we believe that with findings that are robust to ideological controls, we can reasonably rely on the MTurk samples in our studies.


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Funding was provided to the second author by Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 676/13).

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Correspondence to Haggai Elkayam Shalem.

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Elkayam Shalem, H., Ben-Nun Bloom, P. Don’t scratch the moral itch: restoring political image following a scandal. Acta Polit 58, 36–56 (2023).

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  • Morality
  • Bolstering
  • Image
  • Image repair
  • Immoral behavior