Category: Morality

Using the truth to mislead (paltering) feels less bad than lying, but will cost you in the long run

Sneaky scheming young man plotting somethingBy Alex Fradera

Work is getting stale, and you’ve recently been courted by an exciting new company for a great role, the one drawback being a slight pay cut. Before you’ve made up your mind, your manager asks you whether you have plans to go elsewhere. If you wanted to avoid showing your hand, you could lie blatantly. You could change the topic. Or, you could palter: use a truthful statement to create a misleading impression.

“Financially, you’re treating me really well and I don’t think there’s anything out there that could match that.”

Paltering is the topic of a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors, Todd Rogers and others at Harvard University, focused on negotiation situations, where access to accurate information had concrete consequences. They found that paltering is fairly common – real-life negotiators reported doing it more frequently then telling a lie, and as commonly as neglecting to share information – and that one reason for this is that they believed it wasn’t such a big deal as lying. In this, they were sadly mistaken.

Continue reading “Using the truth to mislead (paltering) feels less bad than lying, but will cost you in the long run”

Revenge really is sweet: study shows the mood-enhancing effect of retaliation

A white voodoo doll with five red pins in itBy Alex Fradera

When we feel ostracised, we’re more likely to behave aggressively. Previous research suggests that vengeance on those who we think have wronged us can be driven by a sense of justice, and may activate neural reward centres. But being ostracised can also lead to generalised aggression, even lashing out at unrelated people, so there seems to be more going on. In new research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall tested the idea that social rejection, by making us feel wounded and unwanted, triggers a need to repair our mood by whatever means available, including through the satisfaction of causing harm to those who have made us suffer. They found that aggression can indeed be a viable method of mood repair.

Continue reading “Revenge really is sweet: study shows the mood-enhancing effect of retaliation”

Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation

10060586965_48caa648e4_kBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

Television programs portraying ordinary people in unexpected situations are almost as old as the medium of television itself. First aired in 1984, Candid Camera is often seen as a prototype of the reality show. Its premise was simple – unsuspecting people were confronted with unusual, funny situations and filmed with hidden cameras. However, the genre exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and 2000s with the global success of such series as Survivor, Idol, and Big Brother, and to this day many people continue to abandon their own activities for the voyeuristic other.

Reality shows have not only amassed incredible popularity but have also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism. Among the most serious complaints is the allegation that the shows rely on viewers’ enjoyment of the humiliation and degradation of participants. It is quite difficult to find an individual who is indifferent to such programmes. We either hate reality shows or we watch them, quite often without considering why.

Up until now, scholarly opinion on the subject has been divided. Some maintain that the shows’ appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and is thus driven by positive feelings like empathy and compassion. Others claim that reality TV viewers are driven by a voyeuristic desire to intrude on others and to see them in their most private and embarrassing moments. Michal Hershman Shitrit and Jonathan Cohen from University of Haifa in Israel recently tested these contrasting perspectives for a study in the Journal of Media Psychology. Continue reading “Why do we enjoy reality TV? Researchers say it’s more about empathy than humiliation”

We have an unfortunate tendency to assume we’re morally superior to others

29684870065_506ada5d58_kBy Alex Fradera

“How did our politics get so poisonous? We drank too much of the poison. There’s a gentle high to the condemnation. And you know you’re right, right? You know you’re right.” Steven Colbert

Wrapping up his coverage of the US election, Colbert touched on something that may hold true even beyond partisan politics: most of us seem to think we’re more moral than other people. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has provided fresh evidence supporting Colbert’s observation. Our tendency to see ourselves as better than average – already well-established in psychology in relation to things like driving ability and attractiveness – applies to our sense of our own morality, more strongly than it does to other aspects of ourselves. And the new research shows just how irrational this really is.

Continue reading “We have an unfortunate tendency to assume we’re morally superior to others”

Staged bike crash tests whether empathic people are more altruistic

Figure from Bethlehem et al showing the staged crash & observers located at positions A & C.

By Christian Jarrett

You’re walking to work and spot a cyclist on the ground, next to his upturned bike, wincing in pain. Do you go and help? Of the many factors influencing your decision, psychological theory suggests that among the most important is your levels of empathy. If you feel the cyclist’s pain and misfortune, you’re more likely to be motivated to help. This might sound obvious, but there has been surprisingly little research to test whether measuring someone’s empathy levels in a questionnaire actually predicts the likelihood that they will show real-life altruism. That’s what Richard Bethlehem and his colleagues have done for a new open access study in Social Neuroscience, in which they staged a bicycle accident along a university footpath. The results provide some of the first evidence that empathy is correlated with altruism “in the wild”.  Continue reading “Staged bike crash tests whether empathic people are more altruistic”

Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard

Two cupped hands holding a stone with forgive written on itBy Alex Fradera

Tom Tate’s second visit to the German town of Pforzheim was a return to somewhere he hadn’t seen in fifty years. After bailing from a burning plane, he and his RAF squad had landed there, been captured, and his comrades executed by a Hitler Youth group incensed by the bombing the town had suffered. Tate himself had only escaped by moments, and swore never to return to a place that he believed bore only hate against him. But spurred by a magazine article that mentioned an annual service held to commemorate the atrocity, he decided to make the journey. Once there, he found himself welcomed by a population who deeply regretted their actions.

This story opens a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates whether we underestimate how much our persecutors seek forgiveness. Relevant here is classic research that suggests a difference of perspective in how we judge people’s actions – we see our own actions as being strongly influenced by the situation we’re in, but when judging other another person’s actions we seem him or her as more directly responsible (sometimes described as the actor-observer bias). Researchers Gabrielle Adams and M. Ena Inesi thought that the same bias might be relevant to when one person harms another – that victims will typically assume the perpetrator intended his or her actions and will therefore remain unrepentant. Continue reading “Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard”

Psychologists said it’s disgusting to be reminded that you are an animal. It seems they were wrong

Woman with dog swimming underwater
By Christian Jarrett

Disgust has become a hot topic in psychology research over the last decade or so, not least because findings have shown that the way we respond to physically disgusting threats, like disease-infested blood and puss, is closely related to the way we think about moral violations and moral concepts like purity (hence people’s reluctance to don a shirt purportedly worn by Adolf Hitler).

One repeated claim in this area is that we have evolved to be disgusted by any reminder that we are animals. For instance, the leading disgust and morality researchers Jonathan Haidt, Paul Rozin and Clark McCauley have stated that disgust is “a defensive emotion that guards against the recognition of our animality” and that “anything that reminds us that we are animals elicits disgust”. It’s a compelling idea that feeds into other areas of psychology, for example related to how we react to and cope with reminders of our mortality, and the way we often instinctively dehumanise criminals, pariahs and outsiders. The trouble is, nobody has actually put the claim to a robust test. Until now.  Continue reading “Psychologists said it’s disgusting to be reminded that you are an animal. It seems they were wrong”

Two meta-analyses find no evidence that “Big Brother” eyes boost generosity

Being watched encourages us to be nicer people – what psychologists call behaving “pro-socially”. Recent evidence has suggested this effect can even be driven by artificial surveillance cues, such as eyes pictured on-screen or painted on a donations jar. If true, this would offer up some simple ways to reduce low-level crime and, well, to encourage us all to treat each other a little better. But unfortunately, a new article in Evolution and Human Behavior, calls this into question. Continue reading “Two meta-analyses find no evidence that “Big Brother” eyes boost generosity”

Killer wives are “wicked”, killer husbands are “stressed” –uncovering the sexism in judges’ closing remarks

Judges are not perfect, but we expect them to approach their cases clinically and with detachment, interpreting them on their merits, uninfluenced by stereotypes around skin colour, age, or … gender.

Unfortunately, a new study in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law has analysed the sentencing remarks made by judges in domestic murder cases (defined as murder between heterosexual spouses) and found that they framed killings by men in far more lenient and forgiving terms than killings by women. Continue reading “Killer wives are “wicked”, killer husbands are “stressed” –uncovering the sexism in judges’ closing remarks”

We think scientists are more likely than others to engage in necrobestiality (and other "impure" activities)

For hundreds of years, scientists were just one fixture in the firmament of the intellectual class, as colourful and strident in their own way as the philosophers and poets. But come the 20th Century and the public began to regard scientists with fear and awe, thanks to the advent of immense technologies such as the atomic bomb. In response, the profession consciously rebranded as anonymous public servants in white coats: dutiful, considered and above all, safe. But new research published in PLOS One by researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam and British Columbia suggests that we see scientists as uneasily different, morally separate, and a little bit dangerous.

Bastiaan Rutjens and Steven Heine conducted a series of experiments with nearly 1,900 American participants they recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website (38 per cent women, average age 30). The participants had to complete the conjunction task that involves identifying which of two options they think is more likely to be true, where one option involves detail A (for example, “there are more red pens”), and the other both detail A and detail B (“there are more red, sharp pens”) – the latter is the conjunction response. Logically speaking, there can never be more “red sharp pens” than there are simply “red pens” (the former is a subset of the latter), and the correct answer is always to avoid choosing the conjunction response. But we often break that rule – and reveal our unintentional assumptions – when that extra detail feels too relevant to the situation to ignore.

In the new studies, participants broke the rule when the extra detail was “scientist” and the situation was necrobestiality. That’s right. Participants read one of a range of scenarios involving moral transgressions such as consensual adult incest or having sex with a dead dog, and had to decide whether the perpetrator was a sports fan, or a sports fan and an X. Participants were more likely to opt for the second (conjunction) response when that X was a scientist rather than a control category such as Christian, gay, or Hispanic.

But, scientists were no more likely to be suspected for other moral transgressions such as cheating at cards or treating others abusively, which are examples of harming others for pleasure or personal gain. It seems that the scientists are not being seen as selfishly immoral, but as willing to bend the rules of society, and engage in impure activities – suggesting, in the authors’ words, the “scrupulous ‘Faustian experimentalist’ unburdened by morality but not deliberately evil”. The one borderline result was for serial murder, which was more associated with a scientist perpetrator: this crime undoubtedly involves harm, but also invokes impurity and boundary breaking, without clear self-interested motives, and it seems plausible that it is these aspects driving the association. One way to test this in the future would be with a different murder scenario, such as a crime of passion or for profit.

The data showed that scientists weren’t being swept into a broader atheist category when making judgments: atheists were seen as more likely to be selfishly harmful, whereas scientists were not, and participants’ responses to the question “Do you think that a scientist can believe in God?” had no bearing on their eventual judgments of scientists’ morality. Further data clarified that people were slightly more likely to attribute moral transgressions to scientists if they also saw them as “lacking emotions” or “like a robot.” Scientists were generally seen as valuing curiosity over doing the right thing, and as more dangerous than normal people – and the stronger these perceptions, the more participants saw them as having amoral tendencies.

Yet scientists weren’t seen overall as negative. In fact, they were the most liked group, when compared to atheists, religious and even the average Joe. It’s just that we have this funny feeling that, when society says ‘“no”, the scientist might answer “…why?” and cross boundaries that others leave well alone. As to the truth of this characterisation, this study offers no advice. The true scientists among you might want to find out for yourselves.


Rutjens, B., & Heine, S. (2016). The Immoral Landscape? Scientists Are Associated with Violations of Morality PLOS ONE, 11 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152798

further reading
Distrust of atheists is “deeply and culturally ingrained” even among atheists

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!