Searching for Everyday Morality - Pacific Standard

Searching for Everyday Morality

Experimenters use text messages to study morality beyond the lab.
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(Photo: psd/Flickr)

(Photo: psd/Flickr)

Psychologists at the University of Cologne in Germany and Tilburg University in the Netherlands were perhaps a bit frustrated by the often artificial nature of experiments on human morality. In an effort to collect more realistic data, they did what anyone would do these days: They texted.

Social science researchers often worry about what they call external validity. Sure, you can get people to do some pretty weird things in the lab—giving other subjects electric shocks, ignoring someone in need while on the way to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan, etc. And sometimes the experiments focus on abstract philosophical matters, like whether you’d flip a switch to save people on a runaway train if it meant killing a person walking the tracks. But do any of these experiments apply in the world outside the lab? Are they, in the vernacular, externally valid?

Liberals were more likely to mention moral and immoral acts related to fairness and honesty, while conservatives were more likely to point out events related to loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Wilhelm Hoffman and colleagues figured the best way to find out was to make some observations out in the real world, using what they call “ecological momentary assessment.” In plain English, they recruited 1,252 Canadian and American adults and texted them a link to a survey five times a day for three days. Randomly timed between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., the surveys asked a series of basic questions: had they done, been the victim of, witnessed, or learned about some moral or immoral act within the last hour? For each such event, participants were to describe what had happened and how they felt about it—for example, how happy they were, or whether they had a sense of purpose.

Some of what the team found was predictable, though there were some surprises. Liberals—they’d asked about political ideology as well as religion on a preliminary survey—were more likely to mention moral and immoral acts related to fairness and honesty, while conservatives were more likely to point out events related to loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Meanwhile, religious participants were no more likely to report having taken part in or otherwise experiencing a positive moral action. And while they reported few immoral events, that was largely because they had learned about fewer such events from others.

The surveys also uncovered real-world evidence that experiencing and doing good affects one’s own actions later on, for better and for worse. Having done something good for someone else, they found, decreased the probability of doing good later in the day by about five percent and increased the probability of doing something bad by about four percent relative to the average person, a phenomenon known as moral licensing. Meanwhile, having someone do something good for you upped your chance of doing good by about 11 percent.

“By tracking people’s everyday moral experiences, we corroborated well-controlled artificial laboratory research, refined prior predictions, and made illuminating discoveries about how people experience and structure morality,” the authors conclude in the journal Science. The research could also inspire new models of what a good or bad life really looks like.

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