When psychologists simulate murder – and what it tells us

“Here is something you can’t understand,
…How I could just kill a man”
‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’, by Cypress Hill

Could you put a weighty, replica gun to someone’s head and pull the trigger? This is just what Fiery Cushman and colleagues asked of people in order to explore the psychological basis of our aversion to inflicting harm on other people. Continue reading

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God as cosmic CCTV

Copyright Liam Kearney

It’s almost like a moral decision, but not because no one will find out
Peep Show’s Jez on deciding whether to
have sex with his best friend’s fiancé’s mum.

Unlike the feckless Jez quoted above*, most people recognise that the immorality or wrongness of an act is not determined by whether we get caught or not. (And, conversely, a good deed doesn’t only gain moral value if others are around pat us on the back and say “Well done!”.) Yet people nonetheless do behave differently when their actions are publicly observable. In fact, so sensitive are we to social scrutiny that even subtle cues that we’re being watched can change our behaviour. In one study, simply putting a picture of a pair of eyes above an ‘honesty box’ used to collect money for milk in a university coffee room increased donations by almost three times compared with putting up a picture of flowers (Figure 1)1. Continue reading

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Moral hypocrisy, and how to avoid it

We’re all capable of moral double standards, but what’s the psychological basis of this uniquely human skill?

Ted Haggard in happy times

At the beginning of 2005, Ted Haggard’s stock was high and rising. Time magazine had just included him on a ‘Top 25’ chart of influential Evangelical Christian pastors in America. He had the ear of not only a huge public following, but also President Bush and his advisors. You could easily have thought God was on his side.

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Distributive justice: the evolution of an instinct

The story of humanity is one of working together, of pooling our efforts to achieve more than possible alone. For millennia we teamed up to hunt, build homes, defend communities, raise children, harvest crops and tend cattle; today, some of us are lucky enough to live in countries blessed with a welfare states and a national health service.

For all this time, we’ve faced the basic problem of how to divvy up the goods of society — from meat and maize to power, wealth, social status and respect. Who should get what? Should allocations be based on individual merit? Or need? Or should things be distributed along strict egalitarian lines, with everyone receiving the same? What is fair and just when it comes to redistributing the collective output of communities and nations? These questions of distributive justice are of course well-trodden in political and moral philosophy. But they also arise in day-to-day life, and there’s reason to think that we might come into the world predisposed to lean towards certain distributive principles.

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Mimicry — an antidote to racial prejudice?

Could something as simple as imitating the bodily motions of other people reduce prejudice against those same people? A new paper by Michael Inzlicht, Jennifer N. Gutsell and Lisa Legault, published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests it just might.

Imitation is something humans take to naturally. Babies, from a very early age, delight their parents by copying their movements, gestures and facial expressions, an ability that helps kids pick up the practical and social skills they need to get on in the world. Indeed, imitation in various guises underpins the human capacity for transmitting cultural knowledge and practices, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this has been the key to the global dominance humans have achieved since we began colonising the planet some 60,000 years ago.

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The anatomy of intentional action

In recent years, cognitive scientists have been trying to explain a curious psychological quirk called the ‘Knobe effect’. A new paper by Chandra Sekhar Sripada and Sara Konrath in Mind & Language offers an answer.

(As this is a long post, I’ve formatted it as a PDF so you can print it out and read it over a coffee if you prefer)

A little under a decade ago, a young cognitive scientist called Joshua Knobe, now at Yale University, ran a series of simple experiments with people in a Manhattan Park. He asked half of them to read the following story:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

He then asked his participants, “Did the Chairman intentionally harm the environment?”. The vast majority — around 82% — said yes, he did.

Meanwhile, Knobe asked the other half of his interviewees to read exactly the same passage, but with the word ‘harm’ replaced with ‘help’, and then had them answer the question, “Did the Chairman intentionally help the environment?” Now most people (77%) said no, he did not1,2.

These results — and they’ve been replicated many times since — are a bit surprising. The mechanics of both situations are identical: the chairman signs off a project irrespective of its environmental impact, although in one scenario the outcome is bad (the environment gets harmed), and in the other, it’s good (the environment is helped). So shouldn’t the outcomes, whether good or bad, be seen as equally intentional or unintentional? Well, these findings suggest they’re not: it looks like the ‘moral flavour’ of the outcomes of actions — that is, whether they’re good or bad — shapes whether or not we construe those actions as having been performed intentionally.

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Sins of commission and the logic of omission

(As this is a long post, I’ve formatted it as a PDF so you can print it out and read it over a coffee if you prefer)

It’s a commonplace of both everyday and academic psychology that actively doing something bad is worse than failing to do something good. There seems to be a world of moral difference between actively killing someone — by poisoning their food, say — and allowing them to die (not giving someone who has been poisoned an antidote). The question is why this asymmetry exists between sins of commission and omission — what, psychologically, is the difference between the two, and why do we judge them differently even in cases when action and inaction lead to the same outcome (such as a person’s death)?

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