Moral judgments are made more quickly and are more extreme than judgments based on practical considerations, according to new research that also found that moral judgments are more flexible.
“Little work has been done on how attaching morality to a particular judgment or decision may affect that outcome,” said Jay Van Bavel, Ph.D., an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and one of the study’s co-authors.
“Our findings show that we make and see decisions quite differently if they are made with a morality frame. But, despite these differences, there is now evidence that we can shift judgments so they are based on practical, rather than moral, considerations — and vice versa.”
The findings suggest that deciding to frame an issue as moral can have important consequences, adds co-author Ingrid Haas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Once an issue is declared moral, people’s judgments about that issue become more extreme, and they are more likely to apply those judgments to others,” she said.
And the way that people make decisions affects their behavior, continued co-author Dominic Packer, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Lehigh University. “People may act in ways that violate their moral values when they make decisions in terms of pragmatic concerns — dollars and cents — rather than in a moral frame,” he said. “In ongoing research, we are examining factors that can trigger moral forms of decision making, so that people are more likely to behave in line with their values.”
The study gauged decisions ranging from voting to saving for retirement to dating a co-worker. The researchers said that millions of decisions are made every day, from what type of car to buy to which company to invest in.
Sometimes these decisions are made under a morality-based framework, such as buying a hybrid automobile because of our concerns about the environment. At other times we have practicality in mind, i.e., buying a hybrid automobile because of its fuel efficiency. Either way, we end up making the same decision, the researchers said.
To find out more about the differences between judgments based on morals and those driven by a practical considerations, the researchers conducted experiments at Ohio State University’s Social Cognitive Science lab in which they prompted volunteers to evaluate a variety of decisions from either moral or pragmatic standpoints.
In one experiment, volunteers were presented with 104 actions, one at a time, on a desktop computer. They made moral evaluations for 52 actions using the keyboard, rating “how morally wrong/right it would be for you to” take a specific action, ranging from 1 (very wrong) to 7 (very right).
They also made pragmatic evaluations for the other 52 actions, rating “how personally bad/good you think it would be for you to” take a specific action, ranging from 1 (very bad) to 7 (very good).
Following each moral and pragmatic judgment, participants made universality judgments for the same action, rating “how many other people should” take a specific action (1 = nobody to 7 = everybody).
Actions to be evaluated morally versus pragmatically were randomly assigned to participants. Each action was equally likely to be evaluated according to moral or pragmatic standards, according to the researchers, who say this ensured that any differences between moral and pragmatic evaluations were not due to the specific actions, but, rather, to differences in moral versus pragmatic evaluation.
The results showed that morality-based decisions were made significantly faster than non-morality ones and that the decisions with a moral underpinning were more extreme.
Subjects also were more likely to make universality judgments under the moral-decision frame than under the pragmatic one, said the researchers. The subjects were more likely to indicate that others should make the same decisions they did for judgments made with a moral underpinning.
But the findings also revealed flexibility in what we consider to be moral or non-moral decisions.
The volunteers were randomly assigned moral and non-moral judgments — for instance, some were asked if it is “morally right” to “flatter a boss with a lie” while others were asked “how personally good” it would be for them to take such an action.
Subjects had different responses to the same decision, depending on whether or not it was framed as a moral or pragmatic decision. This suggested that how we view a particular decision, from buying organic food to reporting a crime, may be malleable.
The research is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Source: New York University