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Passions, Reason & Moral Hypocrisy

Most of us think we are morally sound. If we see an injustice, we’ll step in, if we are given the opportunity to cheat, we won’t. Or so we say. Psychological research demonstrates that in certain situations we tend to twist our reasoning to position ourselves as morally superior to others even when have acted otherwise.

In one experiment conducted by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo participants were told that they would be performing one of two tasks; the first was short and fun while the second was long and hard. To induce a small yet significant (and later very revealing) moral dilemma, DeSteno and Valdesolo let half participants decide which task they would preform, knowing that the other task would be allocated to another participant. (They also had the option of letting a computer randomly choose how the tasks would be distributed.) After they finished assigning the task, participants were asked to rate how fair they were. Meanwhile, the group of participants who were at the receiving end of the task allocation were asked to rate how fair the allocating-participants were. It doesn’t take a lot of foresight to see where this is going.

The first thing DeSteno and Valdesolo found was in line with their previous research: only about 8 percent of participants acted altruistically – what an objective set of eyes would call “fair”. Not a great start, and it gets worse. The second thing they found was that, “moral hypocrisy emerged in the control conditions; the same fairness transgression was judged to be substantially more moral when enacted by the self than when enacted by another.” In other words, participants who were in charge of allocating the tasks usually believed that they decided fairly no matter what their decision was. In sharp contrast were the participants who had no say in the process. They believed that the delegating participants were not fair. The lesson here is that we are all “moral hypocrites;” we claim to be morally sound, and when we’re not, we rationalize to improve our moral stature to others and ourselves. Again, not a big surprise.

What DeSteno and Valdesolo were really after was a better understanding of the dual-model process of moral judgment, which understands our moral judgments as products of both our intuitive and deliberate capacities. When it comes to assessing moral situations we have a gut-reaction immediately followed by a more deliberate line of reasoning. For example, when someone asks us if killing an innocent person is wrong you know right away that the answer is yes, but it usually takes a few moments to think of reasons for why this is true. This is not to say that these two systems (system 1 and system 2 as they are referred to in the popular literature) are neurologically separate, but it is to suggest that they are not necessarily on the same page at all times. Understanding their relationship is key to understanding how humans think about moral judgments.

To tease out how these two systems handle moral judgments DeSteno and Valdesolo incorporated a twist. They replicated the experiment but the second time around half of the participants had to make fairness judgments under cognitive load. (They had to memorize a string of digits. The idea here is that their “rational” brains will be busy memorizing the digits thereby freeing up the “intuitive” brain.) They found that under cognitive load, which made reasoning very difficult, the ratings were identical rendering no signs of “moral hypocrisy.”

DeSteno and Valdesolo conclude:

The present study provides strong evidence that moral hypocrisy is governed by a dual-process model of moral judgment wherein a propotent negative reaction to the thought of a fairness transgression operates in tandem with higher order processes to mediate decision making. Hypocrisy readily emerged under normal processing conditions, but disappeared under conditions of cognitive constraint. Inhibiting control prevented a tamping down or override of the intuitive aversive response to the transgression. Of import, these findings rule out the possibility that hypocrisy derives from differences in automatic affective reactions towards one’s own and others’ transgressions. Rather, when contemplating one’s own transgression, motives of rationalization and justification temper the initial negative response and lead to more lenient judgments. Motivated reasoning processes are not engaged when judging others’ violations, rendering the prepotent negative response more causally powerful and leading to harsher judgments.

So Freud had it backwards. It is our intuition – not just our rationality – that seems to have a more objective reaction to moral situations. However, understanding the relationship between the passions and reason is certainly not over. If anything it has just begun, in the context of empirical research at the least. From the ancient Greek philosophers to philosophers of the 21st century moral debates have almost always taken place in the abstract. Now there is plenty of promising science to be excited about. Are our moral judgments simply post-hoc justifications, the rational tail of the emotional dog? Or can our conscious deliberations inform, perhaps control, our moral intuitions. We’ll see what the data says.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Altruism to strangers is quite a different phenomenon to altruism within our group. Recall that dosed with oxytocin people become more in-group altruistic and less out-group.

    I see morality as dealing with the quality of our relationships with other people. What the researchers do is strip the ‘other’ of any identifiable human characteristics and then find that we don’t treat them very well. But why would we treat them well if we have no relationship with them? There’s no relationship except in a very abstract way – from what you say the two groups never even meet.

    My experiment on morality would to find out more about Scientists views on abstract morality divorced from interactions and relationships and why they think this is significant. It’s all very well for a physicist to do an experiment in two dimensions to eliminate gravity as a factor. But does this approach really work for human beings? I’m pretty sure that it does not. And that it tells us very little about how moral human beings are in their natural habitat.

    And let’s keep in mind that we are social primates, and that trying to isolate individual behaviour is only going to produce aberrations. The smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual.

    The experiment described is ingenious but ultimately meaningless. Although… actually it might provide us with some insights into the behaviour of people towards actively dehumanised ‘others’ – but I think we’ve seen plenty of this in the last century or so. We know where that road leads. Do we need to research it?

    January 10, 2012
  2. So then, might there be more utility for a religious motivation to act altruistically? It is often argued by the religious that we need scripture, tradition and perhaps even a transcendant consciousness to inform our moral decisions. Assuming, as you might argue, that we do not need to be informed of what is right and wrong; and this moral compas is born within us all (the “gut reaction” or system 1) and we only fail when we allow system 2 to prevail, Do you think accountability to something higher than the self is a viable way of harnessing our reasoning away of altruism?

    January 10, 2012
  3. Hi Bobby

    By contrast Buddhist morality encourages you to look at the mental states behind how you relate to others, and the various consequences that ensue, and decide how you want to live on the basis of this information. It is true that it gets wrapped up in a lot of religious rigmarole, but this is what it boils down to.

    I think the thing about accountability is interesting. As I understand it in small hunter-gatherer societies everyone knows everyone else’s business so there is no need for a cosmic police force and judiciary. But with civilisation we started living in much larger groups and keeping tabs on everyone became impossible. Since society only works if most of the people follow the rules most of the time, we had to find some way to make people accountable for their private thoughts and actions. At first specific gods had this function (for example Mitra/Mithra in Indo-European myth) but it also became part of the role of Mono-gods. In India the process became depersonalised – the impersonal universe has a way of making sure you reap what you sow (aka karma).

    We actually need accountability, but struggle to get everyone to play along. Hence *surveillance* (cosmic or otherwise) – which was a favourite topic of Foucault. These days we are seeing the power of both CCTV and hand held video cameras for enforcing societal norms! The power has shifted from a god; to The God; to His Church and Priests; to (in out time) the medical profession especially psychiatrists, and the government. Perhaps with YouTube the power is heading back towards the people?

    There is a certain wisdom to the idea that people only follow the rules if there is some possibility of being caught out and negative consequences ensuing. Because there is profit in breaking the rules, some people will always be tempted. Though I’m sure there must be both carrot and stick. One of the problems we have in the UK is understanding the benefits of all working to the same set of rules – we see the stick everywhere, but are not so sure about the carrots.

    January 11, 2012
  4. im very interest to study but i cant im forgetting everything….plz sir say the ans 2 mine

    March 15, 2012
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    February 7, 2013
  6. This is really uptilfing *sigh* I dont like that I have this problem and I try to keep things in perspective because I know the world doesn’t revovle around myself but at times I just get the feeling that everyone is looking at me and judging me for my every mistake, it makes it hard to even interact with people without being even in the least anxious. This is uptilfing though and I will def turn my problems to the Lord because at this point he is the only one that can help me. Thanks for the post and your helping people like us by just talking about your situations and giving us all courage.

    August 30, 2013
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