Why People Aren't as Moral as They Think

Think you are a moral person? Studies show that moral behavior deviates sharply based on situational context.

Jon Miltimore | March 30, 2016 | 7,034

Think you are a moral person? Studies show that moral behavior deviates sharply based on situational context.
Why People Aren't as Moral as They Think

Polls show that about seven in ten Americans believe moral values are getting worse. But if you ask most people, they will probably claim to be one of the moral ones.   

It’s natural for individuals to think of people as either moral or immoral, but the reality is more complicated. In his book The Tipping Point (2000), Malcom Gladwell cites several compelling studies that suggest morality and behavior are largely situational.

Take, for example, the Darley-Batson study, which was inspired by the Bible’s tale involving a Samaritan woman who helped Jesus. The study ran as follows (per Gladwell):

Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was, who would stop and help?

Darley and Benson introduced several variables to determine what might make a seminarian more or less likely to stop and help the “distressed” person. The researchers asked various questions—e.g. did the seminarian enter the seminary for their own spiritual fulfillment or to help others—and gave various sets of instructions. Some were told the Good Samaritan story immediately before he passed the man in the alley, others were not. Some were told to hurry because they were running behind schedule, while some were told they could take their time.

The results? Well, if you are thinking that a student who had said he had entered the faith to help others might be more inclined to stop and help the man in the alley, you’d be wrong. Likewise, if you thought someone who had just heard the story of the Good Samaritan might be more inclined to stop and help, you’d also be wrong.

In fact, the authors state: “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on this way.”

What was the one variable that did make a difference? Telling the seminarian he was late. What does that mean? Gladwell has a hypothesis:

What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior. The words “Oh, you’re late” had the effect of making someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone who was indifferent to suffering—of turning someone, in that particular moment, into a different person. (emphasis mine)

And the Darley-Batson study is not alone. Other studies—Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment that saw test subjects take on their roles as guards and prisoners to a troubling degree; the Hartshorne-May experiment that showed vast variation in whether or not children would cheat on tests based on their situational conditions—have yielded similar results.

The troubling conclusion: we very well might be capable of doing (awful) things we believe ourselves incapable of doing based on the situation in which we find ourselves.

To me, the studies are a great warning. One should resist the temptation to take pride in one’s own perceived morality; just be thankful that God or fate has placed you in a position in which (today, at least) you were able to do the right thing. 

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Jon Miltimore is the Senior Editor of Intellectual Takeout.  He is the former Senior Editor of The History Channel Magazine and a former Managing Editor at Scout Media.

Follow him on Facebook and Twitter



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