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People's positions on moral issues are remarkably flexible, study suggests

morality study still
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A new study shows our moral positions can be as flimsy as a scrap of paper.

People are more flexible and open-minded about moral issues than they realize. In fact, many individuals can even be “tricked” into supporting a position on a moral issue that is opposite to the one they initially claimed as theirs.

That’s the finding from a cleverly designed Swedish study published last week in the journal PLoS One.

Here’s Nature reporter Zoe Corbyn’s description of the new study:

The researchers, led by Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden, recruited 160 volunteers [aged 17 to 69] to fill out a 2-page survey on the extent to which they agreed with 12 statements — either about moral principles relating to society in general or about the morality of current issues in the news, from prostitution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

But the surveys also contained a ‘magic trick’. Each contained two sets of statements, one lightly glued on top of the other. Each survey was given on a clipboard, on the back of which the researchers had added a patch of glue. When participants turned the first page over to complete the second, the top set of statements would stick to the glue, exposing the hidden set but leaving the responses unchanged.

Two statements in every hidden set had been reworded to mean the opposite of the original statements. For example, if the top statement read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the word ‘forbidden’ was replaced with ‘permitted’ in the hidden statement.

Participants were then asked to read aloud three of the statements, including the two that had been altered, and discuss their responses.

About half of the participants did not detect the changes, and 69% accepted at least one of the altered statements.

People were even willing to argue in favour of the reversed statements: A full 53% of participants argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude in at least one of the manipulated statements.

Rationalizing a flip-flop

As Hall and the other authors of the study point out, psychologists have long been puzzled by the fact that what people say does not often predict what they’ll do.

“Now we have compounded this by showing that moral attitudes sometimes can be reversed moments after they are announced,” the researchers write.

“These results,” they conclude, “suggest a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes, and indicates a clear role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change.”

It seems politicians aren’t the only ones who find it easy to rationalize  and defend  a flip-flop on an issue.

You can read Corbyn’s full discussion of the study on the Nature website. You’ll find the study itself on the PLoS One website. Hall and his co-authors have also prepared a one-minute silent video to illustrate how statements were "magically" switched in the study without the participants' knowledge.

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Comments (3)

Research validity?

Is this really supportable as valid research methodology? Much more sensible to compare people's responses to their views on particular moral principles, then compare to how people respond when asked about a specific hypothetical situation involving that moral principal. For example, people will say stealing is wrong, but will also say stealing food is acceptable when one's family is starving. This study seems to prove people can be tricked.

I would agree

Except that people specifically argued their new position. You may be fooled into believing that one statement is the same as another with single word difference. But when you take up the actual point made in the new statement as your position, then you've changed your position.

Maybe it indicates that we are more similar than we think

This makes me think that for all the differences that regular people, the media, and politicians try to create between themselves and their opponents, it is more likely that we are very similar in how we assess moral behavior and that we can build from this instead of letting cultural forces use small differences to divide us.