Search the Synapse

Friday, May 15, 2015

Psychologists use smartphones to measure ethics

What would you do if you could divert a train to save five men but kill one man as a result? Would you do so? What if you had to push that man in front of the train to save the others?

Psychologists often use these kinds of “trolley problems” on test subjects using desk computers in their laboratories to study our moral reasoning. But recently a study published in the journal Science went beyond hypothetical questions into real life. Psychologists now have a sophisticated lab tool for examining morality not just in the lab, but in everyday life: the smartphone.

In the study, 1252 participants of varying ages, ethnicities, and educational levels from the US and Canada texted—in their homes, in the streets, wherever they happened to be. At five random points each day, they would receive a survey by text message, and they would briefly describe the moral or immoral acts they had committed, been the target of, witnessed, or learned about (e.g., through gossip, news, and the internet) within the last hour. From the texts, the researchers were able to measure the frequency and content of moral and immoral acts.

They found that people who were non-religious committed about as many moral acts as those who were religious. And liberals reported more moral acts of fairness, liberty and honesty, while conservatives reported more moral acts of loyalty, authority, and purity. Committing a moral act was associated with a greater sense of purpose, and being the target of a moral act was associated with higher levels of happiness.

Overall, moral acts were reported just as often as immoral acts, but there were some interesting imbalances. Acts committed by the self or received from others were more than twice as likely to be moral than immoral. The opposite case emerged for learned-about acts: they were more than twice as likely to be immoral. The use of smartphones allowed researchers to examine interactions in real-life time, which previously had not been possible in the laboratory. This allowed them to examine how one moral act determined the occurrence of another throughout the day.

Their findings provided evidence for a kind of moral slacking that psychologists call “self-licensing”: people who commit a moral act early in the day are less likely to do so later on, and more likely to commit an immoral act. But there was also evidence for what psychologists call “moral contagion”: people who receive a moral act are more likely to commit a moral act themselves later that day. Self-licensing and moral contagion are amenable to social intervention. So we may be able to alter moral behavior by intervening in the moral course of people’s days.

Researchers foresee the ability to use the smartphone not only for data collection, but to provide interventions to increase self-discipline. According to the original paper, “Given these different mechanisms, it seems important to find out more about how the principles of moral contagion can be used in public policy interventions, and how moral slacking may be prevented.” The study is one of the first of its kind to study ethics outside of the laboratory. More studies will need to be done, but this one has made striking entrance into the real world.

It collected an impressive number of 13,240 responses, substantially more than most psychology studies. The larger the number of responses, the better that sample represents the general population of interest. This allows for robust results and generalization across large populations. But since participants were sampled exclusively from the West (US and Canada), researchers weren’t able to examine how cultures differ in their prioritization of moral values across cultures – a subject of great interest to moral scientists.

Still, the study provides evidence that controlled but artificial laboratory findings also apply to people’s everyday moral experiences. Although the findings are tentative, they provide important areas for further research, and new methods to do so in real-time, everyday situations. “I think of this as a first look of how morality plays out in real life,” says Dr. Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “The first telescopes didn’t tell us everything about the galaxy, but they gave us a tantalizing sense of what’s out there.”