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Morals Can Be Manipulated

New research suggests eye-tracking devices can be used to point us to one side or another of an ethical issue.
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(Illustration: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

(Illustration: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

We tend to think of our views on moral issues as fairly consistent. Granted, we may not always live up to them, but our basic beliefs on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior feel like they arise from the core of our being, and are thus not easily shaken.

Newly published research suggests we may be deceiving ourselves. It finds that, at least to some extent, our responses to ethics-related questions can be manipulated in a surprisingly simple way: By tracking, and directing, one’s eye movements.

Moral choices are “coupled to the immediate environment through sensory interaction,” writes a research team led by Philip Pärnamets of Lund University in Sweden. “The process of arriving at a moral decision is not only reflected in a participant’s eye gaze, but can also be determined by it.”

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Pärnamets and his colleagues (including Michel Spivey of the University of California-Merced) describe a series of experiments. Each featured around 20 people whose eye movements were tracked as they sat at computer screens and followed audio instructions.

"The process of arriving at a moral decision is not only reflected in a participant’s eye gaze, but can also be determined by it."

They were presented with morality related statements derived from Moral Foundations Theory. An assertion such as “Hurting a defenseless animal is always bad” would pop up. Immediately afterwards, two alternatives—“It’s always bad” or “It’s sometimes bad”—were briefly flashed on different sides of the screen.

“It was stressed that they should look at both alternatives,” the researchers write. “Once prompted to indicate their choice, participants were instructed to respond quickly.”

In the first experiment, the participants were told to make their choice “as soon as one of the two alternatives had been viewed for at least 750 milliseconds, and the other had been viewed for at least 250 milliseconds.” As it turned out, that half-second or so made a significant difference.

“Participants chose the alternative most viewed at the time of interruption in 59.64 percent of trials,” the researchers report. Those making that choice also took less time to answer, and afterwards expressed more confidence in their decisions.

Of course, they may have simply spent more time gazing at the viewpoint they shared (or, at least, were leaning toward). To remove that possibility, the researchers structured the second experiment somewhat differently.

“At the start of each trial, we randomly selected one alternative to be the target,” they write. “We altered the decision rule so that participants only would be prompted to choose (between the two) once the target alternative had accumulated at least 750 milliseconds of gaze, and the non-target alternative at least 250 milliseconds.”

Once again, participants were more likely to choose the answer they had spent the most time looking at. Specifically, “they chose the randomly predetermined target alternative in 58.2 percent of the trials,” the researchers report. As in the first experiment, “response times were significantly shorter when choosing the target alternative.”

In a third experiment, participants rated the issues raised in the experiment as quite important. The researchers were able to steer them in one direction or despite the seriousness of the subject matter.

“The type of questions we used concerned virtues and vices, empathy and generosity, questions about God, sex, and death—the kind of questions that can drive elections and divide nations,” they note. Yet the answers could be manipulated by simply demanding a decision after one possible response had been looked at for a fraction of a second longer than the other.

For some of us, at least, this raises the frightening specter of political manipulation. In a previous study, people who cast ballots at a polling place located in a church were more likely to vote for socially conservative initiatives and candidates. Could this reflect the fact their eyes drifted over to, and momentarily fixated on, religious imagery on their way to vote?

“Moral decisions can be debated at leisure after the fact,” the researchers note in conclusion, “(but) they are often made in the moment. We find that the precise timing of those moments can be a powerful influence on the choices that we make.”

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.