Category: Morality

Seeing good people do bad things makes the world feel like a more confusing place

By Emma Young

Have you ever believed someone to be decent — but then they did something morally bad, which turned that belief on its head? It happens more often than we might think. And, according to new work in Social Psychology and Personality Science, the consequences are far-reaching.

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People behave more sadistically when they’re bored

By Emma Young

Sadism — harming others for pleasure — is often viewed as a “dark” personality trait, alongside narcissism, say, or psychopathy. Research exploring just what can bring out someone’s sadistic tendencies has found that even viewing images of injuries can do it. But now a new paper reveals a factor that the researchers conclude has a “crucial but overlooked” role in fostering sadistic behaviour: simple boredom.

We already know that bored people will give themselves electric shocks to alleviate their under-stimulation. This new work suggests that a willingness to harm when there’s nothing else to do extends to hurting other people, too — and this was true even for those who’d scored low on a general sadism scale. It’s not exactly an uplifting message about humanity. But, the authors argue, it could lead to new approaches to preventing sadism in schools, the military and other settings.

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Here’s Why We Believe That Beautiful Animals Are More Deserving Of Our Protection

By Emma Young

Do you think a ladybird is more beautiful than a locust? If you do, you probably also feel that the ladybird is “purer” than the locust, and this leads you to believe that it possesses more inherent moral worth. This, at least, is the conclusion of a new paper that inextricably links perceptions of purity, beauty, and moral standing for people as well as animals, and even landscapes and buildings.

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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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