New research discovers people who trust their “gut instincts” are less likely to commit immoral acts compared to those who tend to discount their intuition.
In psychological studies, intuition, or “gut instinct,” is defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.
In the new research, Sarah Ward, a University of Missouri graduate student, found that people who tend to rely on their gut feelings are less likely to cheat after reflecting on past experiences during which they behaved immorally.
“Some people trust their gut feelings when making decisions, whereas other people are less reliant on them and don’t pay much heed to gut feelings even if they do experience them,” said Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychological Sciences.
“We were interested in studying how individual differences in intuition affect moral behavior and other relevant outcomes.”
The study appears in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Ward conducted two experiments to determine if individual differences in relying on one’s intuition affected moral behavior. More than 100 participants, three-quarters of which were women, first answered a series of questionnaires to determine their tendency to rely on intuition.
In the first experiment, participants in the experimental group were asked to imagine that they had acted immorally in a workplace setting; participants each read a story about how they made a mistake at work but blamed a co-worker. Participants in the control group read the same story but instead imagined they took responsibility for the mistake.
Ward anticipated that the manipulation involving an imagined immoral action might elicit self-conscious moral emotions, such as shame or guilt. Prior research has shown that these emotions can cause people to feel a sense of uncleanliness or contamination. Based on this, she predicted that people who imagined they had done something immoral would be willing to pay more for hand-cleaning products.
“If you feel badly about a moral transgression, you might want to cleanse yourself,” Ward said. “Our study found that participants who were more reliant on intuition were willing to pay more for hand sanitizer after reading about a moral transgression.”
In the second experiment, participants were asked to write about a time they acted immorally (or a control topic) and then were asked to take an unsolvable IQ test.
Ward was curious to see if more intuitive individuals would subsequently cheat less on an “unsolvable” IQ test. The “test” featured 10 questions; each participant received a paper with the answers placed face down on their desks and was told to grade his or her own test when finished.
Participants were told the top 10 percent would receive a lottery ticket, which Ward said provided an incentive to cheat. Results showed that up to 23 percent cheated on the test.
“Our second experiment showed that people who tend to rely on their gut feelings are less likely to cheat after reflecting on a time when they behaved immorally,” Ward said.
“We feel this is because people try to compensate for past bad behavior by acting morally in the present, and that this tendency to try to compensate for past actions may be especially pronounced among people who rely on intuition.”
Ward said her research has implications for the real world. In a workplace setting, for example, it might be beneficial for people to rely more on their intuitions when making morally relevant decisions.