Moral evaluations are faster, more extreme than pragmatic ones, but also flexible
Judgments made after a moral evaluation are quicker and more extreme than the same judgment based on practical considerations, but morality-based evaluations can be more easily shifted and made with other considerations in mind, according to research published November 28 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Jay Van Bavel and colleagues from New York University.
Previous research has suggested that moral reasoning usually occurs after a person makes a decision, as a post hoc justification of their choice, rather than the basis for the decision itself. This new study suggests that people can evaluate choices using either moral or non-moral considerations, and this can lead to different choices for the same actions.
For example, participants in the study were given actions that are typically evaluated in a moral context, such as murder, and non-moral actions, such as riding a bike or buying organic food, and asked to evaluate each in both a pragmatic and a moral sense. They were also asked to choose how strongly they would advocate the action to others.
The authors found that participants had different responses to the same decision depending on whether or not it was framed as a moral or pragmatic choice. They found that moral evaluations were faster, more extreme and more strongly associated with universal prescriptions (“everybody/nobody should” statements) than non-moral or pragmatic evaluations of the same actions. In addition, the authors also found that people took longer to decide on such universal prescriptions when asked to evaluate them in a pragmatic rather than moral context.
According to the authors, their results suggest that deciding to frame any issue as moral or not may have important consequences. They say, “Once an issue is declared moral, people’s judgments about that issue become more extreme, and they are more likely to apply those judgments to others.”
“The Importance of Moral Construal: Moral versus Non-Moral Construal Elicits Faster, More Extreme, Universal Evaluations of the Same Actions”, Van Bavel JJ, Packer DJ, Haas IJ, Cunningham WA (2012)
PLoS ONE. 7(11): e48693. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048693
Financial Disclosure: This research was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to JV and DP and the National Science Foundation (BCS-0819250) to WC. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interest Statement: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.