With a Simple Question, Eliciting Moral BehaviorA new study on the psychology of moral judgment suggests a prescribed view of morality may lead to increases in moral behavior.

Liane Young, Ph.D., a Boston College psychology professor and researcher, believes moral behavior can be primed by having individuals think of morality as objective facts rather than subjective preferences.

In the study, reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers performed two experiments to demonstrate the influence of perspective for the actualization of moral behavior.

In the experiments, one conducted in-person and the other online, participants were primed to consider a belief in either moral realism (the notion that morals are like facts) or moral anti-realism (the belief that morals reflect people’s preferences) during a solicitation for a charitable donation.

In both experiments, those primed with moral realism pledged to give more money to the charity than those primed with anti-realism or those not primed at all.

“There is significant debate about whether morals are processed more like objective facts, like mathematical truths, or more like subjective preferences similar to whether vanilla or chocolate tastes better,” said Young. “We wanted to explore the impact of these different meta-ethical views on actual behavior.”

In one experiment, a street canvasser attempted to solicit donations from passersby for a charity that aids impoverished children.

Participants in one set were asked a leading question to prime a belief in moral realism: “Do you agree that some things are just morally right or wrong, good or bad, wherever you happen to be from in the world?”

Those in a second set were asked a question to prime belief in moral anti-realism: “Do you agree that our morals and values are shaped by our culture and upbringing, so there are no absolute right answers to any moral questions?”

Participants in a control set were not asked any priming question.

In this experiment, participants primed with moral realism were twice as likely to be donors, compared to those primed with anti-realism or not primed at all. A second experiment, conducted online, yielded similar results.

Participants asked to donate money to a charity of their choice who were primed with realism reported being willing to give more than those primed with anti-realism or not primed at all.

“Priming participants to consider the notion that morals are like facts increased decisions to donate in both experiments, revealing the potential impact of meta-ethical views on everyday decision-making,” said Young.

“Simply asking participants to consider moral values, as we did with the anti-realism prime, did not produce an effect,” she said, “so priming morality in general may not necessarily lead to better behavior. Considering the existence of non-negotiable moral facts may have raised the stakes and motivated participants to behave better.”

Since “real” moral stakes may be accompanied by “real” consequences —whether good (e.g., helping others, enhanced self-esteem) or bad (e.g., retribution), priming a belief in moral realism may in fact prompt people to behave better, in line with their existing moral beliefs, the researchers say.

The researchers note that the ability to prime a belief in moral realism can be a simple proposition — such as when the right thing to do is relatively unambiguous (e.g., it is good to be generous) — or be a challenging task when individuals face more controversial moral issues.

In fact, a different outcome could be possible when subjects are faced with more controversial moral issues, they say.

Source: Boston College