A Moral Thermostat?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Much of the immorality in the news these days has to do with greed: Wealthy financiers running Ponzi schemes, presidential aides cheating on their taxes, industrialists spoiling the environment. There appears to be a widespread erosion of any sense of social responsibility.

What’s going on with these people? Are they simply bad people? Are our educational and religious institutions failing? Are the rewards of being a good and honest man simply not enough to curb our darker impulses? Or are we all both sinners and saints, depending on the circumstances?

Psychologists have been looking into these questions, specifically the idea that we all toggle back and forth constantly between righteousness and immorality. Is it possible that we have a set point for morality, much like we do for body weight? Three Northwestern University psychologists recently explored this question in the laboratory, with some intriguing results.

Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Iliev and Douglas Medin had the idea that our sense of moral self-worth might serve as a kind of thermostat, tilting us toward moral stricture at one time and moral license at another, but keeping us on a steady track. They tested this by priming volunteers’ feelings of moral superiority—or their sense of guilt—and watching what happened.

In one experiment, for example, they had the volunteers write brief stories about themselves. Some were required to use words like generous, fair and kind, while others wrote their stories using words such as greedy, mean and selfish. This was the unconscious prime, well known to activate feeling of either righteousness or regret. Afterward, all the volunteers were given a chance to donate money to a favorite charity; as much as $10 or as little as zero. The volunteers didn’t know their charity was being measured as part of the experiment, and the results were unambiguous. Those who were primed to think of their moral transgressions gave on average $5.30, more than twice that of controls; those who were primed to feel self-righteous gave a piddling $1.07.

These results suggest that when people feel immoral, they “cleanse” their self image by acting unselfishly. But when they have reason to feel a little superior, that positive self image triggers a sense of moral license. That is, the righteous feel they have some latitude to stray a bit in order to compensate. It’s like working in a soup kitchen gives you the right to cheat on your taxes later in the week.

The psychologists wanted to double check these findings, and they did so in the context of the environment. That is, do the same feelings of moral superiority and moral transgression shape the trade-offs we make between self-interest and the health of the planet? They used the same primes, and then had all the volunteers pretend they were managing a manufacturing plant. As managers, they had to choose how much they would pay to operate filters that would control smokestack pollution. They could simply obey the industry standard, or they could do more or less; that is, choose social responsibility or choose to cheat the common good.

The results, reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, were clear. Those who were feeling morally debased were much more communitarian, spending more money for the sake of clean skies. The morally righteous were stingy, and what’s more, they took the view that plant managers should put profits ahead of green concerns. They saw it as a business decision, not an ethical choice.

So it appears that our inner moralist deals in a kind of moral “currency.” We collect chits through our good deeds, and debts through our transgressions, and we spend our chits to pay off our moral debts. That way, we keep the moral ledger balanced.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Excerpts from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at sciam.com.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:46 AM


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