Would you wilfully hurt or kill one person so as to save multiple others? That’s the dilemma at the heart of moral psychology’s favourite thought experiment and its derivatives. In the classic case, you must decide whether or not to pull a lever to divert a runaway mining trolley so that it avoids killing five people and instead kills a single individual on another line. A popular theory in the field states that, to many of us, so abhorrent is the notion of deliberately harming someone that our “deontological” instincts deter us from pulling the lever; on the other hand, the more we intellectualise the problem with cool detachment, the more likely we will make a utilitarian or consequentialist judgment and divert the trolley.
Armed with thought experiments of this kind, psychologists have examined all manner of individual and circumstantial factors that influence the likelihood of people making deontological vs. utilitarian moral decisions. However, there’s a fatal (excuse the pun) problem. A striking new paper in Psychological Science finds that our answers to the thought experiments don’t match up with our real-world moral decisions.
When, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony delivers his funeral oration for his fallen friend, he famously says “The evil that men do lives on; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Anthony was talking about how history would remember Caesar, lamenting that doing evil confers greater historical immortality than doing good. But what about literal immortality?
While there’s no room for such a notion in the scientific worldview, belief in an immortal afterlife was common throughout history and continues to this day across many cultures. Formal, codified belief systems like Christianity have a lot to say about the afterlife, including how earthly behaviour determines our eternal fate: the virtuous among us will apparently spend the rest of our spiritual days in paradise, while the wicked are condemned to suffer until the end of time. Yet, according to Christianity and many other formal religions, there’s no suggestion that anyone – good, bad or indifferent – gets more or less immortality, which is taken to be an all-or-nothing affair.
This is not how ordinary people think intuitively about immortality, though. In a series of seven studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kurt Gray at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues, have found that, whether religious or not, people tend to think that those who do good or evil in their earthly lives achieve greater immortality than those who lead more morally neutral lives. What’s more, the virtuous and the wicked are seen to achieve different kinds of immortality.
“Lower your music, you’re upsetting other passengers.” Without social sanction, society frays at the edges. But what drives someone to intervene against bad behaviour? One cynical view is that it appeals to those who want to feel better about themselves through scolding others. But research putting this to the test in British Journal of Social Psychology has found that interveners are rather different in character.
Last year, so few people contracted measles in England and Wales that the disease was declared technically “eliminated”. The national MMR (measles mumps rubella) vaccination programme is to thank. But set against this welcome news were some imperfect stats: in England in 2016/17, only 87.6 per cent of children had received both the required doses of the vaccine by their fifth birthday – a drop compared with the previous two years. At least part of the reason was a reluctance among some parents to have their children vaccinated. This is a problem that affects other countries, and other vaccines, too. And it’s troubling, because clusters of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children are more susceptible to disease outbreaks – indeed, a measles outbreak in Leeds and Liverpool just last year affected unprotected children, providing a reminder why all children should be vaccinated.
In a new paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, a team led by Avnika Amin at Emory University, US, reveal a previously overlooked explanation for “vaccine hesitancy”, as it’s called – and it’s to do with parents’ basic moral values.
Why should the “better-than-average” effect be so pronounced for moral traits? In new work, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay at Royal Holloway, University of London have found that it’s because we’re especially irrational when it comes to evaluating moral traits. Moral superiority appears to be “a uniquely strong and prevalent form of positive illusion,” they write.
Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.
This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.
“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.
“I don’t think you are truly mean, you have sad eyes” Tormund Giantsbane ponders the true self of Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane in Game of Thrones, Beyond The Wall.
Who are you really? Is there a “true you” beneath the masquerade? According to a trio of psychologists and philosophers writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the idea that we each have a hidden true or authentic self is an incredibly common folk belief, and moreover, the way most of us think about these true selves is remarkably consistent, even across different cultures, from Westeros to Tibet.
This makes the concept of a true self useful because it helps explain many of the judgments we make about ourselves and others. Yet, from a scientific perspective, there is actually no such thing as the true self. “The notion that there are especially authentic parts of the self, and that these parts can remain cloaked from view indefinitely, borders on the superstitious,” write Nina Strohminger and her colleagues at Yale University.
After a terror attack, amidst the shock and sadness, there is simple incomprehension: how could anyone be so brutal, so inhuman? In Nature Human Behaviour, Sandra Baez and her colleagues offer rare insight based on their tests of 66 incarcerated paramilitary terrorists in Colombia, who had murdered an average of 33 victims each. The terrorists completed measures of their intelligence, aggression, emotion recognition, and crucially, their moral judgments.
Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?
In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.
Most employers like their workers to think of themselves not as employees but as “citizens” of the organisation, proactively engaging in activities like helping others out or coming up with company improvements – activities that aren’t specified in a job description yet help the organisation thrive. But more and more, these supposedly discretional citizenship behaviours are being demanded by managers more overtly – outlined in ‘The Way We Work’ documents, or threatened informally as necessary to get ahead. Now an article in the Academy of Management Journal suggests being forced to be a good citizen has some perverse consequences: when you’re grudgingly good, you become blasé about doing bad.