Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Two Experiments Support The Notion That Deliberate Reflection Assists In Making Moral Decisions


There is an interesting article about morality in this week's Economist magazine, and it's titled, Time to be honest: A simple experiment suggests a way to encourage truthfulness. The piece describes two simple experiments created by Shaul Shalvi, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, to explore how people make moral choices under certain conditions. He had assistance from fellow researchers Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer of Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

To carry out their experiment, Dr Shalvi, Dr Eldar and Dr Bereby-Meyer gave each of 76 volunteers a six-sided die and a cup. Participants were told that a number of them, chosen at random, would earn ten shekels (about $2.50) for each pip of the numeral they rolled on the die. They were then instructed to shake their cups, check the outcome of the rolled die and remember this roll. Next, they were asked to roll the die two more times, to satisfy themselves that it was not loaded, and, that done, to enter the result of the first roll on a computer terminal. Half of the participants were told to complete this procedure within 20 seconds while the others were given no time limit.
The average score of any single die roll is 3.5. It turns out that people who had the 20 second time limit placed upon them had an average die roll of 4.6. Those people cheated. The subjects who had a longer time to reflect had an average die roll of 3.9. They cheated also, but not as much.
The researchers gathered another group of volunteers and ran a second experiment along the same lines.
Again, half were put under time pressure and, since there were no additional rolls to make, the restriction was changed from 20 seconds to eight. The others were allowed to consider the matter for as long as they wished.
This time the group who had a 8 second window had an average score of 4.4 while the other group appeared not to cheat at all with a score of 3.4.
Now, these are fairly interesting studies that show that people are, by and large, better at making some moral decisions when given the time to think about it. This is no surprise to me. I have given classes on how to de-escalate violent situations at work (for those of you who do not know, I work with brain injured men), and one of the basic tenets is to give a person the time to engage his or her higher cognitive processes and refrain from the fight or flight response. Also, my wife and I have been given the good advice never to argue while standing up. Just by sitting down assists both parties' brains to think about conflict logically and avoid unnecessary conflict.  One would assume the results of the two experiments be considered evidence for the skeptical virtue of thoughtful reflection.
However, as the late great Christopher Hitchens pointed out, religion poisons everything. This is how The Economist's article opened.
“IS SIN original?” ... Is cheating, in other words, instinctive or calculating?
 And by the results of the experiments the answer is, of course, yes.
The conclusion, therefore, at least in the matter of cheating at dice, is that sin is indeed original.
And there is the logical leap. The leap the writer makes from the notion that our species has difficulty making moral decisions under pressure to the to the fact that we are simply born to be bad. Using language like that takes the emphasis from how our western Enlightenment values are awesome to the myth that our species is born in sin. And that myth of sin implies a need for a redeemer. I'd counter that superstition with the fact that thinking is a vital ingredient to producing moral behavior.

This is Purgatory.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. The other factor to note is the degree of "sin" we are talking about. I find it possible to believe that people will "tell a small lie" to earn $2.50. Those same people may pretty moral in their lives and would never commit any of the "larger sins" (I hate the word "sin"). In other words, because some people chose quickly to lie in order win a few bucks, does not in my opinion lead to the belief that we are all inherently "guilty of original sin" or "naturally bad".

    I would suggest that the authors look at some of the other studies done on much larger moral questions for perhaps a more indicative result.

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