Everyday morals tracked via smartphone (Wired UK)

Subjects were sent surveys to fill in through their smartphones

Wilhelm Hofmann

Our lives are surprisingly packed with morally loaded
experiences. We see others behaving badly (or well), and we behave
well (or badly) ourselves. In a new study, researchers used a
smartphone app to track moral and immoral acts committed or
witnessed by more than 1,200 people as they went about their days.
It’s one of the first attempts to quantify the moral landscape of
daily life, and it contains some interesting hints about how people
are influenced by the behaviour or others, as well as by their own
political and religious leanings.

Wilhelm Hofmann, a social psychologist at the University of
Cologne in Germany, and his colleagues pinged study participants
with text messages at random times and asked them to report any
moral or immoral acts they’d committed, been the target of,
witnessed, or simply heard about within the previous hour. Such
acts turned out to be common: of the 13,240 responses collected
over the course of the study study, 29 percent included a morally
significant event. These were roughly evenly split between moral
acts (in the judgment of the person reporting the event), such as
helping a lost tourist or giving a sandwich to a homeless person,
and acts deemed immoral, such as petty theft or smoking in a car
full of children. Most of these acts — 64 percent — occurred in
public places. Another 23 percent occurred at home.

There’s much more to the study, but that finding alone is
interesting because it shows how often we make moral judgments in
daily life, says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York
University’s Stern School of Business, who was not involved in the
work. “My view is that moral psychology is the operating system of
human social life,” he said. “To the extent that we’re able to
interact with strangers it’s because we create these dense webs of
moral norms and then we judge each other relentlessly on them and
know that we’ll be judged, and that’s what makes it all work.”

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have grown
increasingly interested in studying the roots of human morality. Until now, they’ve relied
largely on questionnaires and fictional moral dilemmas like the
infamous trolley problems (variations on the question, “Would you
shove one person in front of an oncoming trolley car in order to
save the lives of five other people?”).

The new study attempts to take morality research out of the lab
and into the real world, in this case, into the lives of 1,252 US
and Canadian adults recruited through Craigslist, Twitter, and
other sources. The findings, reported today in Science, are largely consistent with
what researchers previously have found with surveys and lab studies
(and the rest of us have encountered in real life).

For example, there were hints of hypocrisy, or at least
selective awareness. People were about three times as likely to
report committing a moral act as an immoral one, but about 2.5
times as likely to report hearing about someone else behaving badly
as doing good deeds. (It’s all those other people doing bad

The study also supports the idea, proposed by Haidt and
popularised in his book The Righteous Mind, that people with
different political leanings emphasise different aspects of
. Hoffmann and colleagues found that people who
self-identified as liberal reported more events having to do with
fairness or unfairness, for example, while conservatives reported
more events having to do with sanctity or degradation (talking with
a relative about God and meditating, for example, or, conversely,
catching a teenage son watching porn).

The researchers found no evidence that religious people commit
moral acts more often than nonreligious people. Religious people
reported hearing about fewer immoral acts, however, which the
authors suggest may be due largely to being selective about the
company they keep (and perhaps not watching Game of
, although the study didn’t actually examine that).

They did find evidence for a phenomenon psychologists call moral
contagion: People who were the target of a moral act were more
likely to commit a moral act later in the day. But there was also
evidence for a countervailing influence called moral
self-licensing. People who committed a moral act earlier in the day
were more likely to slack off, morally speaking: They committed
fewer moral and more immoral acts later in the day.

It might be possible to use of some of these findings to craft
public policies that encourage good behaviour, says co-author Mark
Brandt of Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “It may be
possible to take advantage of moral contagion by making people the
targets of moral acts more often or at least reminding them of
times when they were a target of moral charity,” Brandt said.
Similarly, he says, warning people about the possibility of
self-licensing and stressing the importance of moral consistency
might be useful in recycling programs or other efforts to care for
the environment.

The smartphone approach raises many possibilities for future
research on moral psychology. For example, to study the factors
that influence moral behaviour, researchers could text people
survey questions or tests of moral judgement as they pass through
certain locations — as they walk by a church, for example, or a
neighbourhood with a lot of crime — or right after they see or
commit certain types of acts.

“This kind of technology could be used to see how communities
respond to sociologically relevant events like a terrorist attack,
a basketball victory, or extreme weather — all things that seem to
pull people together,” Haidt said. For example, he says, New
Yorkers often say people were nicer to each other in the immediate
aftermath of 9/11. “If you’re tracking people over time, it would
be interesting to see if people do more nice things for each other,
if they’re more trusting and cooperative, when the local team wins.
If there’s a threat, does everyone band together, or do people band
together along ethnic lines or lines of similarity?”

This article originally appeared on Wired.com

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12 September 2014 | 9:14 am – Source: wired.co.uk

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