Moral judgements & decision-making under the influence

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You  might think your moral compass is pretty reliable – you know what is right and what is wrong and make decisions based on that and also judge other people accordingly.

So would you push someone under a train if it would save 5 other people? Probably not if you are on antidepressants according to research at Cambridge University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in New Scientist recently; “Take antidepressants and you’ll be a soft touch”.

An antidepressant citalopram, which raises your serotonin levels (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI), was administered to 24 healthy volunteers who were then given this moral dilemma. Compared to other volunteers given a placebo they were 10% less likely to inflict harm on someone. In another experiment the drugged volunteers were more likely to accept unfair treatment than punish the other person’s greed.

The researchers pointed out that antidepressants are the most widely prescribed class of drugs (in the USA) so it’s important to investigate their effects on users’ social behaviour and moral judgement.

But what if instead you asked people to clean themselves or think clean thoughts?

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that asking people to clean their hands with antiseptic wipes or priming them to feel clean by reading passages about how clean they felt had the same effect ie they made harsher moral judgements on a range of social issues including pornography and littering than those who were primed to feel dirty or who didn’t follow the cleaning procedure.

The researchers concluded that: “Acts of cleanliness not only have the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgement of others“.

And if you are a woman and you think you are too trusting, a drop of testosterone could increase your guardedness. Researchers in the Netherlands and South Africa placed a  drop of testosterone on women’s tongues and asked them to judge the trustworthiness of a series of male faces.

They also asked other women to whom they gave a placebo, then repeated the experiment but swapped the treatment. Women who had just been given testosterone were less trustful of the men than those given the placebo. And the effect was more pronounced amongst women who were normally more trustful. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol 107 No 22)

Makes you wonder about juries or other situations where people judge others – not just so-called talent shows but more mundane things like selection panels or performance reviews.

Updated 6 January 2011: Having sweat samples hung under your nose in teabags sounds like something only a psychologist would devise. But it showed that when people are anxious they release a chemical signal that is detectable at an unconscious level by those nearby.

Participants were exposed to sweat from both anxious and non-anxious participants without knowing which was which. When exposed to anxious sweat they took longer but made riskier decisions.

Haegler ‘s research in Neuropsychologia showed that the participants rated both kinds of sweat equally unpleasant and couldn’t consciously tell the difference. Earlier research had shown that sweat collected from an anxious person triggered extra activity in emotion-related brain areas.

Haegler wondered if the perception of emotional chemical signals might alert individuals to danger but said that the results certainly suggested that; anxiety in humans can be communicated through chemical senses unconsciously”.



32 thoughts on “Moral judgements & decision-making under the influence

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    A very interesting read, but you (or your sources) seem to make an unfortunate (but very common) oversimplification where it comes to moral judgements:

    What we believe is the right thing to do and what we actually do are not always the same. If we look at the train scenario above, I would probably say that killing the one to save the five would be the correct decision (strictly on a “lesser of two evils” basis and with reservations for the exact circumstances, including who the people were)—but I honestly doubt that I, personally, could actually bring myself do the killing.

    In this light, the actual interpretation of the result becomes more uncertain: Has an actual moral shift taken place or has something else changed (e.g. the level of inhibitions)?

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    My most read posts in 2011 « EI 4u said:
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    […] 3rd most read was: Moral Judgements and decision-making which had the most comments and was also in last year’s top […]

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