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Yes, I’m a Good Person. But Did You Hear About Her?

A new study tracks how people experience moral issues in everyday life.
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(Photo: HieroGraphic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: HieroGraphic/Shutterstock)

Want to feel a sense of purpose in your life? Do a good deed for someone.

On the other hand, if immediate happiness is your priority, let someone else do a good deed for you.

Those are among the fascinating findings of a new study published in Science magazine, which analyzes how morality and immorality are expressed, and experienced, in the real world.

This subject has been studied extensively by social psychologists in recent years, leading to important insights. We now know that liberals and conservatives live in somewhat different ethical universes, and that doing a good deed gives us license to cut a few ethical corners later in the day.

But most of this research has taken place in laboratories, leading to the inevitable question of whether it truly reflects real-world conditions. So, in a just-published study, participants were prompted to note, and evaluate, moral experiences as they went about their everyday lives.

Religious and non-religious people "commit comparable moral and immoral deeds, and with comparable frequency," although religious people "respond more strongly in psychological terms to the immoral and moral deeds they commit."

The results largely support the aforementioned conclusions, and suggest our day-to-day experiences with morality are colored by our need to boost our own egos. As University of Southern California psychologist Jesse Graham writes in a commentary accompanying the article: “The study suggests that moral life can largely be characterized by two kinds of events: Noting one’s own good deeds, and gossiping about the bad deeds of others.”

The study, conducted by a team led by University of Cologne psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann, featured 1,252 adults in the U.S. and Canada. Each participant was randomly signaled on his or her smartphone five times a day for three consecutive days. At each instance, they “indicated whether they committed, were the target of, witnessed, or learned about a moral or immoral act within the last hour.”

If the answer was yes (as it was nearly 29 percent of the time), they wrote a brief text describing the event, and indicated their level of happiness, sense of purpose, and the extent they were feeling nine distinct “moral emotions” such as guilt and disgust. (Religiosity and political ideology were established in an initial interview.)

While the participant reported a roughly equal number of moral and immoral acts, they “were more likely to report committing, or being the target of, a moral vs. an immoral act, and were more like to learn about an immoral rather than a moral act.” In other words, actual interactions tended to be positive, while gossip was negative.

Confirming Jonathan Haidt’s theories, the researchers found people on the political right and left tended to emphasize different moral concerns, with liberals mentioning incidents relating to fairness more often than conservatives, and conservatives describing incidents relating to loyalty and authority more often than liberals. These distinctions “appear to be a matter of nuance rather than stark contrast,” they write.

They found that religious and non-religious people “commit comparable moral and immoral deeds, and with comparable frequency,” although religious people “respond more strongly in psychological terms to the immoral and moral deeds they commit.”

Participants reported the greatest increase in happiness when they were the recipient of a moral act, and felt the largest decrease in happiness when they were the victim of an immoral act. That said, acting on a moral belief appeared to have a more profound influence, as the researchers found  “doing good leads to the most purpose in people’s lives.”

Finally, the researchers found evidence supporting the concepts of both “moral contagion” and “moral licensing.” They report that, among their sample, “becoming the target of a moral act was associated with an above-average likelihood of committing a moral act later.”

On the other hand, “committing a moral act earlier in the day was associated with an above-average likelihood of a subsequent immoral act, and a decreased likelihood of a subsequent moral act.” Apparently, once you’ve done your good deed for the day, anything goes.

These findings are all based on self-reports, which can of course be subject to bias. But the less-than-flattering results, such as that last one, suggest a high level of honesty. All in all, the study reminds us that we all face ethical issues every day, and how we react to them tells us a lot about who we are.