By guest blogger Jesse Singal
One of the most important and durable findings in moral and political psychology is that there is a tail-wags-the-dog aspect to human morality. Most of us like to think we have carefully thought-through, coherent moral systems that guide our behaviour and judgements. In reality our behaviour and judgements often stem from gut-level impulses, and only after the fact do we build elaborate moral rationales to justify what we believe and do.
A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines this issue through a fascinating lens: free will. Or, more specifically, via people’s judgments about how much free will others had when committing various transgressions. The team, led by Jim A. C. Everett of the University of Kent and Cory J. Clark of Durham University, ran 14 studies geared at evaluating the possibility that at least some of the time the moral tail wags the dog: first people decide whether someone is blameworthy, and then judge how much free will they have, in a way that allows them to justify blaming those they want to blame and excusing those they want to excuse.
The researchers examined this hypothesis, for which there is already some evidence, through the lens of American partisan politics. In the paper they note that previous research has shown that conservatives have a greater belief in free will than liberals, and are more moralising in general (that is, they categorise a larger number of acts as morally problematic, and rely on a greater number of principles — or moral foundations — in making these judgements). The first two of the new studies replicated these findings — this is consistent with the idea, put simply, that conservatives believe in free will more because it allows them to level more moral judgements.
There’s a lot to unpack in the remaining studies, but here are a few of the key findings:
In Study 4, the researchers found that when it came to attribution of free will in instances that were viewed as “equally immoral for liberals and conservatives,” (such as spreading malicious rumours about a co-worker) there was no longer any correlation between participants’ political stance (liberal vs. conservative) and their evaluations of how much free will the transgressor had. This lends support to the idea that “differences in conservatives’ and liberals’ perception of free will may be partially due to differences in moralisation, rather than representing any generalised, abstract belief that human behaviours are freely chosen.”
In Study 5, the researchers found that when they deliberately presented participants with hypothetical acts designed to be viewed as more immoral by liberals — such as “Robert sends a formal complaint to his child’s school after finding that his child’s kindergarten teacher is transgendered” — the normal pattern reversed itself, and it was now liberals who attributed more free will to the actors in question. (This finding was weaker, and only statistically significant when the researchers bumped up their sample beyond its initial size.)
In Study 7, the researchers synthesised the aforementioned findings and randomly assigned online participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to situations in which the person committing a bad act was either described as liberal or conservative and as acting in order to achieve liberal or conservative goals. After confirming that the MTurk respondents viewed moral harms against their own political group more harshly, the researchers also found “tentative — but weak — evidence” in favour of their overall hypothesis: liberal MTurkers viewed conservative bad actors as having more free will than bad-acting liberals, and conservative MTurkers viewed liberal bad actors as having more free will than bad-acting conservatives. In short, when people take political actions that we morally disapprove of, we’re more inclined to believe they did it of their own volition. This bias afflicts conservatives more often, because they’re more morally disapproving, but can just as easily afflict liberals.
Some of the evidence is mixed, but overall the paper suggests that even judgments about free will (a complex philosophical concept that has been the subject of much debate and introspection) can’t escape the gut-impulse nature that underlies so much human moralising. Though preliminary, this is an important finding that could have ramifications for society. For one thing, if we have a tendency to view agents as more free when their bad acts offend us politically, but as less free when they don’t, that’s the sort of psychological tendency that could be echoed in law enforcement.
Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring behavioral-science-talk. He is also working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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