Category: Morality

When People Hold Morally-Based Attitudes, Two-Sided Messages Can Encourage Them To Consider Opposing Viewpoints

By Emma Young

Where do you stand on pheasant shooting? Or single-religion schools? Or abortion? However you feel, your attitudes probably have a strong moral basis. This makes them especially resistant to change. And since anyone who holds an opposing view, based on their own moral stance, is unlikely to be easily swayed by your arguments, these kinds of disputes tend to lead to blow-outs within families and workplaces, as well, of course, as online.

So, anything that can encourage people to be more open to at least thinking about an alternative point of view could be helpful, reasoned Mengran Xu and Richard E. Petty at The Ohio State University, US. And in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they reveal a potentially promising method for doing just this.

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Do Liberals And Conservatives Really Have Different Moral Foundations? Differences May Be Less Clear Cut Than Often Claimed

By Emma Young

The idea that political conservatives and liberals differ in fundamental ways — in their biology and neurology, personality and moral foundations — has received a good deal of attention. However, cracks have begun to appear in this idea. In 2019, we covered new work finding that conservatives are not in fact more readily disgusted than liberals (disgust has a moral dimension, of course). And the year before, Jesse Singal, a regular Digest guest blogger, covered evidence suggesting that claims about liberal-conservative personality differences have been overblown.

Now a major new review and meta-analysis of research into political orientation and moral foundations — essentially, how people view morality — calls into question some influential earlier conclusions. Writing in the Psychological Bulletin, J. Matias Kivikangas at Aalto University and colleagues report finding support for the idea of some basic moral differences between conservatives and liberals. However, they also conclude that the differences are less clear cut than had been thought, and the results are also less generalisable across regions, countries and political cultures than has been claimed.  

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If We Don’t Feel Socially Accepted, We Get More Defensive When We’ve Done Something Wrong

By Emily Reynolds

When you’ve done something wrong, big or small, it can be hard to own up to it — particularly if you feel you’ve transgressed a moral or social code. Instead, you might avoid confronting the issue and become defensive. Yet defensiveness often has negative consequences anyway: it can hurt someone else’s feelings, cloud your ability to make a good decision in the moment, or prevent you from changing harmful behaviours.

But why do we get defensive, and what can we do to minimise those negative consequences? A new study from Michael Wenzel and colleagues at Flinders University, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, asks both of these questions — and finds that defensiveness could be reduced by affirming people’s moral and social worth.

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Grateful People Are More Likely To Obey Commands To Commit Ethically Dubious Acts

By Emma Young

Gratitude is widely regarded as a positive emotion. When we feel grateful, we are more helpful, generous and fair to others — findings that were supported by a 2017 meta-analysis, which concluded that gratitude is important for building relationships. But now a new study in Emotion suggests that gratitude has a dark side. Specifically, people who felt more grateful were more willing to accede to an instruction to prepare as many worms as possible for grinding to their death. As Eddie M. W. Tong at the National University of Singapore and his colleagues write: “The findings suggest that gratitude can make a person more vulnerable to social influence, including obeying commands to perform a questionable act.” 

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Children Are Much Less Likely Than Adults To Prioritise Human Over Animal Lives

By Emma Young

“Two boats are sinking and you can save only one. One holds two dogs, the other a person. Which do you save? If you’re not sure, you can say, ‘I can’t decide.’” When I put this to my 11-year-old, his response was immediate: “Save the dogs!” In his defence, he has grown up with a pet dog, which he adores — and, according to a new study in Psychological Science, most other kids would say the same thing.

To adults, these findings might seem a little alarming. Indeed, when the team put similar questions (varying the numbers of dogs, pigs and people) to adult participants, 61% opted to save one human over 100 dogs (which does mean of course that nearly 40% didn’t), and 85% of people prioritised one human over one dog, while 93% opted to save a human rather than a single pig (3% went for the pig).

When the team asked 249 kids aged between five and nine about what they thought, though, they found that just over 70% opted to let a person die to save 100 dogs. When it came to one human vs one dog, only about a third of the children opted to save the person, 28% were clear on going for the dog, and the rest couldn’t decide.

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US Politicians Use Moral Language More Often When They Have Less Power

By Emily Reynolds

Whatever your political affiliation, making appeals to people’s morality can be a powerful rhetorical tool. Politicians frequently use language that refers to moral principles of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity, in order to defend policy positions, appeal to new voters and appease old ones. And it’s an approach that seems to work. Research suggests that people are far more likely to take action once they connect a particular issue with their own moral or ethical convictions — even to the point of committing acts of violence.

But how and when politicians use moral language shifts with changes in the political landscape, according to a new study from the University of Toronto’s Sze-Yuh Nina Wang and Yoel Inbar, published in Psychological Science. Looking at Democrat and Republican politicians in the US, they found that moral language increased as political power decreased, suggesting that its use is not fixed. 

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Our Feelings Towards People Expressing Empathy Depend On Who They’re Empathising With

By Emily Reynolds

We tend to think of empathy as a wholly positive thing, a trait that’s not only favourable to possess but that we should actively foster. Books and courses promise to reveal secret wells of empathy and ways to channel them; some people even charge for “empathy readings”, a service that seems to sit somewhere between a psychic reading and a therapy session.

It would be easy to assume, therefore, that people who express empathy are generally well-liked. But a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that our feelings towards “empathisers” depends on who they are empathising with. While empathisers were considered warmer overall, participants judged people who expressed empathy for those with troubling political views more harshly — suggesting that we don’t always interpret empathy as a pure moral virtue.

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We Are Less Likely To Dehumanise Prisoners Who Are Approaching The End Of Their Sentence

By Emma Young

Criminals are often characterised in the popular press as “animals” or “cold-blooded”. Such adjectives effectively dehumanise them, and there’s no end of research finding that if we deny fully human emotional and thinking capacities to other people, we are less likely to treat them in a humane way. But how long does prisoner dehumanisation last? Is it a life sentence? Or, wondered the authors of a new paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, does it depend on how long a prisoner has left to serve?

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People Are More Positive About Hacking When They Feel They’ve Been Treated Unfairly

By Emily Reynolds

Type the word “hacker” into any stock photo search engine and you’ll be greeted with pages and pages of images of someone sitting in the dark, typing threateningly at their laptop, and more often than not wearing a balaclava or Guy Fawkes mask. That Matrix-inspired 1990s aesthetic of green code on black is still prevalent — and still implies that hackers have inherently nefarious ends.

More recently, however, the idea of hacking as a prosocial activity has gained more attention. Earlier this year, one group of hackers made headlines for donating $10,000 in Bitcoin to two charities, the result of what they say was the extortion of millions of dollars from multinational companies.

While the charities declined the donations, social media responses were more mixed, with some praising the hackers. And in a new study, Maria S. Heering and colleagues from the University of Kent argue that our view of hacking is somewhat malleable: when people were treated unfairly and the institutions responsible did nothing to redress their grievances, they felt more positive about hackers who targeted the source of their anger.

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After Cheating On A Test, People Claim To Have Known The Answers Anyway

By Emily Reynolds

Cheating is common, ranging from benign instances like looking up an answer on your phone during a pub quiz, to the fairly major, such as using a series of coughs to fraudulently bag yourself a million pounds on a popular TV game show. But wherever we fall on that scale, research suggests, we’re still likely to think of ourselves as honest and trustworthy.

There’s something of a tension here — we’re seemingly both prone to cheating and convinced of our own integrity. Matthew L. Stanley and colleagues from Duke University have one explanation for this apparent contradiction in their latest paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review: when we cheat, we claim we knew the answers all along.

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