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Darkness Clouds Moral Compass

In the popular Star Wars universe the dark side of the Force is portrayed as evil, representing a moral and philosophical choice to the light, or good side of humanity.

New research in Psychological Science shows that darkness does induce a psychological feeling of secrecy or mystery, and a window for amoral behavior.

For example, just as children playing “hide and seek” will close their eyes and believe that others cannot see them, the experience of darkness, even one as subtle as wearing a pair of sunglasses, triggers the belief that we are safe from others’ attention and inspections.

Psychological scientists Chen-Bo Zhong, Vanessa K. Bohns (both of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management), and Francesca Gino (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) conducted three experiments to test whether darkness can license dishonest and self-interested behaviors.

In the first experiment, participants were placed in a dimly- or well-lit room and received a brown envelope that contained $10 along with one empty white envelope. They were then asked to complete a worksheet with 20 matrices, each consisting of 12 three-digit numbers. The participants had five minutes to find two numbers in each matrix that added up to 10.

The researchers left it up to the participants to score their own work and for each pair of numbers correctly identified they could keep $0.50 from their supply of money. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to place the remainder of their money into the white envelope on their way out.

While there was no difference in actual performance, participants in the slightly dim room cheated more and thus earned more undeserved money than those in a well-lit room.

In the second experiment, some participants wore a pair of sunglasses and others wore clear glasses while interacting with an ostensible stranger in a different room (participants actually interacted with the experimenter).

Each person had $6 to allocate between him- or herself and the recipient and could keep what he or she didn’t offer. Participants wearing sunglasses behaved more selfishly by giving significantly less than those wearing clear glasses.

In the third experiment, the scientists replicated the previous experiment and then measured the extent to which participants felt anonymous during the experiment. Once again, those wearing sunglasses gave significantly less money and furthermore, those wearing sunglasses reported feeling more anonymous during the study.

Across all three experiments, darkness had no bearing on actual anonymity, yet it still increased morally questionable behaviors. The researchers suggest that the experience of darkness may induce a sense of anonymity that is disproportionate from actual anonymity in a given situation.

Zhong explains, “Imagine that a person alone in a closed room is deciding whether to lie to a total stranger in an email. Clearly, whether the room is well-lit or not would not affect the person’s actual level of anonymity.

“Nevertheless, darkness may license unethical behavior in such situations.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Darkness Clouds Moral Compass

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Darkness Clouds Moral Compass. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2010/03/02/darkness-clouds-moral-compass/11791.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.