Are you the sort of person who would never hesitate to give the money back if the barista who made your coffee in the morning gave you too much change? Do you pride yourself on never lying, cheating or stealing?
Well, we may think our morals are set in stone but new research reveals our standards may be more easily influenced than we think – possibly for ill, but preferably for good.
A series of experiments has revealed that changing the way people process information – by priming them to have a particular mindset – leads to differences in how they subsequently judge the morality of a particular behaviour, and how they themselves behave.
“Morality has been extensively explored in literature and philosophy, and there are two main approaches to moral reasoning,” explains lead researcher Dr Geetanjali Saluja from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
The first view of morality is a very fixed, rule-based approach, where a particular action is considered either right or wrong – for example, it is always wrong to commit murder (what’s known as the deontological perspective).
The second view of morality is more flexible and takes into consideration whether the means justify the ends – for example stealing might be okay if it is taking from the rich to give to the poor (the consequentialist perspective).
The researchers primed some participants to have a more ‘flexible’ approach to morality by asking them to analyse and judge a range of news items one by one. Other participants were primed to have a more ‘fixed’ approach to morality by asking them to judge the news items as a collection, rather than making individual assessments of each one.
“We found that changing someone’s mindset – how they processed the information – changed their moral outlook when presented with a hypothetical situation a short time later,” says Dr Saluja, a marketing researcher with UTS Business School.
One of the hypothetical situations researchers presented to participants was a story about someone who accidently collected extra change from a café barista but did not return it.
They were asked how moral or immoral they found this person’s behaviour and how certain they were about that judgment.
The results showed that participants who had been primed to view information on an individual basis were more likely to see taking the extra change as okay.
On the other hand, those who were primed to make a ‘global’ judgment about information were more certain about the immorality of the situation.
Another experiment examined whether participants were more or less open to downloading pirated movies.
Those who previously judged information on an individual basis were more likely to entertain the idea of illegal downloads than those who had earlier made a ‘global’ judgement.
A final experiment revealed that inducing a ‘global’ mindset encouraged participants to be more generous to fellow students – in this case offering them a ‘lucky draw ticket’.
“If we understand what shifts moral values, then we can perhaps influence consumers to act in more ethical ways, such as reducing the trade in illegal wildlife or pirated goods,” says Dr Saluja.
“Helping people think about the overall picture, or the global view, and how behaviours are good or bad for society, is likely to encourage more moral behaviour,” she says.