Some good news about everyday moral life

[Note: The following post was written for and first appeared on our YourMorals.org blog]

“To err is human, to forgive divine” (Alexander Pope, 1711). But what is also divine is finding out that you didn’t err (much). A paper in the latest  issue of the journal Science has given morality researchers a cause to feel great about the state of their field.

Transient

In an impressive new study Hofmann and colleagues (2014) examined everyday morality by text messaging 1252 study participants 5x a day for 3 days and prompting them to report any moral or immoral events they experienced in the past hour: acts that they committed or were the target of, that they witnessed directly, or that they heard about. In each prompt the researchers also assessed the participants’ levels on various emotions, happiness, and purpose in life

Collecting and making sense of this type of rich, text-based field data offers high ecological validity, but it can be extremely challenging and effort-intensive and is regrettably rare in morality research, and in psychology in general. Instead, most such research relies on more artificial methods and settings, e.g. tightly controlled lab experiments on unsuspecting (though increasingly, very much suspecting) college students, hypothetical decisions about unusual scenarios, reactions to moral stimuli while keeping still inside a brain scanner, large-scale Internet surveys (such as ours on this site), and so on. When more ecological data become available, they sometimespaint a different picture than the one suggested by theories and findings arrived at with other methods.

But not this time! The Hofmann et al study is strikingly consistent with a number of moral psychological frameworks and phenomena under active investigation in the field, bringing scholars a collective sigh of relief.

For example, their participants reported committing and receiving more moral than immoral acts (i.e. good news! we tend to do and encounter more good than bad), but learn about twice as many immoral than moral acts (i.e. we talk about other people’s bad deeds more than their good). This finding is consistent with previous theorizing that our moral sense evolved primarily via third-party monitoring of moral behavior and reputation management (Dunbar, 1996; Haidt, 2012). In other words, we’ve got morality because we evolved to gossip and to want others to like and respect us.

Consistent with our own work here at YourMorals.org, 80% of the reported moral events could be categorized into the five dimensions proposed by Moral Foundations Theory, offering resounding support for the theory itself, but also for the broader notion that everyday moral life is rich andmultidimensional. Morality extends beyond a singular moral concern with harm and the reduction of suffering (see my essay on this topic here). Consistent with our own analysis of open-ended text data, Hofmann and colleagues also found evidence that everyday moral events feel along 3 additional dimensions: Honesty, Liberty/oppression, and Self Discipline. For over a year, we’ve discussed adding these exact dimensions to our framework, so we are extremely excited and encouraged that a completely independent research team using a different method has arrived at a very similar conclusion. Lastly, the study replicated one of the landmark findings based on MFT obtained using questionnaire data from YourMorals.org, namely that liberals and conservatives place different emphasis on the five moral foundations. Hofmann et al.’s data showed that, even when controlling for religiosity, liberals were more likely than conservatives to report events related to Fairness, Honesty, and Autonomy, whereas conservatives were more likely to report events related to Loyalty and Sanctity.

The new study confirmed two other moral phenomena that have come out of lab research: moral contagion and moral licensing. Namely, people who reported being the targets of moral acts within the last hour were significantly more likely to subsequently report acting morally themselves, consistent with findings of moral contagion (i.e. good news again! we tend to “pay it forward”). However, moral contagion’s evil twin — moral licensing — also found support, wherein committing a moral act earlier in the day was associated with greater likelihood of subsequently committing an immoral act (i.e. bad news! once we’ve done our good deed for the day we feel licensed to be jerks later on).

Several other interesting patterns emerged. Not surprisingly, being treated morally increased one’s happiness and being treated immorally decreased it. What is more intriguing is that the greatest increase in a sense of purpose and meaning in life came after reports of having acted morally oneself. This is consistent with previous work showing, and suggests that while our moment-to-moment happiness depends on (how we are treated by) others, our larger sense of purpose in life is our own doing. More good news, right?

Another interesting pattern was that religious and non-religious people did not differ in their reports of how many moral or immoral deeds they committed. While we should keep in mind that these data are based on participants’ self-report of their own moral/immoral behavior (and all the biases self-reports might bring along), it is nevertheless surprising that there was no evidence of a heathen effect.

In short, a new study with a unique “out in the real world” method suggests this about our moral psychology:

  • we tend to give and receive more good deeds than bad, but
  • we mostly hear about the bad
  • when someone does us a kindness, we tend to pay it forward, but
  • then tend to rest on our laurels,
  • holding religious beliefs doesn’t make us more moral or less immoral, but
  • holding a liberal or a conservative political ideology does affect our moral experiences
  • being the targets of moral deeds makes us happy while the reverse makes us unhappy, but
  • we feel our lives have the most purpose when we act morally ourselves
  • even though most moral psychology research relies on artificial methods removed from people’s everyday lived experiences, the insights generated appear right on track. Phew!