You have to hand it to Kurt Gray, a doctoral student at Harvard. He knows how to spin a set of three small experiments he conducted to make headlines. Here’s what Gray had to say about his findings:
“By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance.”
“But in fact, this research suggests that physical strength may be an effect, not a cause, of moral acts.”
Did Gray actually measure a person’s inherent “goodness” or capacity for evil (or did he measure artificial situations created in a lab that may or may not actually mimic these qualities)? And if so, did he also measure physical strength (or simply one small aspect of strength, physical endurance)?
In the three experiments, he demonstrated that if you give money to charity, you can hold a weight 5 to 7 seconds longer than if you didn’t (out of an average of 71 seconds holding the weight). That’s between 7 and 10 percent more than the control group, so it becomes a significant difference. Yes, having the choice to give $1 to charity — the $1 the experimenter just handed you, so not really your $1 — makes you “good.”
“Evil,” in Gray’s single experiment to measure this component, consisted of writing a fictional story “using all of your physical strength” about your doing some kind of harm to another person. This, of course, is not “evil” in most people’s books. Being asked to write a fictional story by a psychology experimenter seems to fall squarely into “creative writing,” not, “Look, I created an artificial condition of ‘evil’ in the laboratory!”
I’m all for interesting experiments done to look into the effects our behaviors have on ourselves and others around us. What I object to is the over-the-top dramatization by researchers suggesting they tapped into some core insight about the nature of good and evil.
In fact, as Gray noted in his paper, those who were in the “harm” condition (as he refers to it in his research, not the “evil” condition) also felt significantly more guilty than those in the other two conditions (helping and control). While guilt did not equate to being able to hold up the weight any longer, it begs the question — isn’t it likely that there’s a complex emotional interaction going on here that gross measurements such as Gray’s fail to take into account? Humans aren’t like animals where emotions just turn off and on by flipping a switch (or asking them to write a story).
We don’t know whether what Gray did actually was a good test of “goodness,” since charity is just one small component of what might make a person “good.” (You could, for instance, still be good and not give much to charity.) Nor do we know if writing a fictional story where you were specifically directed to do harm to another person equates to “evil.” And last, the researcher’s suggestion that physical endurance is the same as physical strength is simply incorrect and a gross generalization — the two are not synonymous.
Sorry, but all this research demonstrates is that if you want to hold a weight 5 to 7 seconds longer than your friends, give $1 to charity just before you do it. Budding researchers such as Kurt Gray would do well to remember that “spinning” your research data does more harm than good. It’s fine to share what you actually found, but you may look a bit foolish and silly when you suggest the data shows more than it actually did.
Read the full article: Strength in naughty or nice
Link to the research paper: Moral Transformation: Good and Evil Turn the Weak into the Mighty