Media Releases

Are we more — or less — moral than we think?

February 23, 2011

TORONTO, ON — A study by Rim­ma Teper, Michael Inzlicht, and Eliz­a­beth Page-Gould of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC) on human moral­i­ty has just been pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The study test­ed the dif­fer­ence between moral fore­cast­ing and moral action—and the rea­sons behind any mis­match. The find­ings look encour­ag­ing: peo­ple act more moral­ly than they would have pre­dict­ed.

But lest we get sen­ti­men­tal about that result, lead author and psy­chol­o­gy PhD can­di­date Teper offers this: “There has been oth­er work that has shown the oppo­site effect—that peo­ple are act­ing less moral­ly” than they fore­cast.

What’s the miss­ing link between moral rea­son­ing and moral action? Emo­tion. Emotions—fear, guilt, love—play a cen­tral role in all think­ing and behav­ior, includ­ing moral behav­ior. But when peo­ple are con­tem­plat­ing how they’ll act, “they don’t have a good grasp of the inten­si­ty of the emo­tions they will feel” in the breach, says Teper, so they mis­judge what they’ll do.

For this study, three groups of stu­dents were giv­en a math test of 15 ques­tions. One group was told that a glitch in the soft­ware would cause the cor­rect answer to show on the screen if they hit the space bar—but only they would know they’d hit it. This group took the test; a $5 reward was promised for 10 or more right answers. Anoth­er group was giv­en a descrip­tion of this moral dilem­ma, and was then asked to pre­dict whether or not they would cheat for each ques­tion. The third group just took the test with­out the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cheat.

Dur­ing the tri­al, elec­trodes mea­sured the strength of par­tic­i­pants’ heart con­trac­tions, their heart and breath­ing rates, and the sweat in their palms—all of which increase with height­ened emo­tion. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, those fac­ing the real dilem­ma were most emo­tion­al. Their emo­tions drove them to do the right thing and refrain from cheat­ing.

The stu­dents asked only to pre­dict their actions felt calmer—and said they’d cheat more than the test-tak­ers actu­al­ly did. Stu­dents who took the test with no oppor­tu­ni­ty to cheat were calmer as well, indi­cat­ing the arousal that the stu­dents in the first group were feel­ing was unique to the moral dilem­ma.

But emo­tions con­flict, and that fig­ures in deci­sion mak­ing too. “If the stakes were higher—say, the reward was $100—the emo­tions asso­ci­at­ed with that poten­tial gain might over­ride the ner­vous­ness or fear asso­ci­at­ed with cheat­ing,” says Teper. In future research, “we might try to turn this effect around” and see how emo­tion leads peo­ple to act less moral­ly than they fore­cast.

“This time, we got a rosy pic­ture of human nature,” co-author Michael Inzlicht com­ments. “But the essen­tial find­ing is that emo­tions are what dri­ve you to do the right thing or the wrong thing.”


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Karen Ho
Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Assis­tant
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough Cam­pus