I doubt Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the first public figure to have boasted about his moral compass. Implicit in these claims is the idea that to follow a moral code is a good thing. But this may betray a certain psychological naivete, for a growing research base is showing much of our moral thinking is automatic and nonconscious – mindless even.
To take an example provided by psychologist Jonathan Haidt: most people register moral objection when told a story about a brother and sister who slept together, consensually, with no harm arising. Yet asked why they find it objectionable, such people can’t explain their reasoning – a phenomenon that Haidt has dubbed moral dumbfounding.
Now Fionnuala Murphy and colleagues have provided further evidence for the automaticity of moral processing. Murphy’s team asked three groups of 24 students to read different versions of short stories that either ended with a morally good or morally bad punchline.
The tales and their punchlines were constructed in such a way that pairs of stories shared a matching final sentence, which was worded identically, and yet had two different moral meanings based on the preceding context. For example, the sentence “Jessica thought about the situation and decided it would be right for her to do it” could either have good moral connotations following a story about returning a lost wallet, or immoral connotations following a story about the possibility of an affair.
Murhpy’s team found that it took participants longer to read final sentences with an immoral meaning than those with a moral meaning. As the final sentences were worded identically, this delay must have arisen because the participants had processed the contrasting moral implications of the stories.
The most important part of the experiment concerned the fact that two of the participant groups were given an easy or difficult memory task to do at the same time as they read the stories. These participants also took longer to read immoral punchlines compared with moral ones, thus suggesting they too had processed the moral content of the stories, even though they had been mentally distracted by a memory task at the time of reading.
“Researchers in the area of social cognition have shown that many social psychological phenomena — including attitudes, evaluations and impressions, emotions, and social behaviour — occur automatically and without awareness (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; PDF). The present findings suggest that the same may be true for moral processing,” the researchers said.
Fionnuala Murphy, Gemma Wilde, Neil Ogden, Philip Barnard, Andrew Calder (2008). Assessing the automaticity of moral processing: Efficient coding of moral information during narrative comprehension The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (1), 41-49 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802254441