How Steady Is Your Moral Compass? (or Swedes with Meta-attitudes)

One of the neuro/psych blogs I follow, Mind Hacks, lead me to an interesting article about a recent study out of Sweden where researchers manipulated unwitting study participants into defending a moral position that was supposedly contrary to their true beliefs.

Respondents consisted of 160 volunteers (100 female) between the ages of 17 and 69 (Mean 29.5, Standard Deviation 10.8) picked “at random” walking through a park. They were asked to review statements on a variety of topics ranging from privacy to conflicts in the Middle East and then indicate on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they agreed with each one. The respondents were shown one set of statements while filling in their responses. When they were done, the researchers used a little slight-of-hand to replace those statements with another set of similar but slightly altered statements, while leaving the respondents’ choices unchanged. For example, if the respondent saw a statement that read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the altered statement would have the word “forbidden” replaced with “permitted”, effectively reversing the meaning of the respondent’s choice.

What’s interesting is that supposedly, when shown the altered statements and asked to explain their choices, about half of the participants did not even notice the statements had been tampered with, and 69% agreed with at least one of the altered statements.

People were even willing to argue in favour of the reversed statements: A full 53% of participants argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude in at least one of the manipulated statements, the authors write. Hall and his colleagues have previously reported this effect, called ‘choice blindness’, in other areas, including taste and smell and aesthetic choice.

While I think this study is interesting (and not a little scary), I’m not sure what the take-away is or if there even is one at this point. I’d want to dig deeper to learn what motivated the respondents to switch sides. Why would they not simply say, “Oh, that doesn’t look right. I must’ve picked the wrong choice, because that’s not how I feel!”

Was it just ego demanding they stick to their guns, even if it hadn’t actually been their original choices (or rather, their original statements)? Or do Swedes have a particular propensity for playing Devil’s Advocate? Or do they have an innate moral flexibility the rest of us don’t? Or was it some competing researchers who wanted to have a bit of fun and decided to pay a bunch of people to “randomly” walk through the park where they were delivering the survey, just to screw with them 🙂

The researchers themselves seem confused and not quite comfortable with the conclusions that could be drawn from what they observed:

… the notion of opinions instantly reversing through CB creates considerable tension…

Mmmm, tension indeed. So their conclusion was pretty safe:

… the current study challenges our basic conception of what it means to express an attitude, and demonstrates a considerable malleability of everyday moral opinions. Future studies will determine how our CB methodology relates to established meta-attitudinal and implicit response time measures [45], [46], and to further explore the role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change.

It would be interesting to see another group of researchers try to reproduce this.

Anyway, here’s the link to the full study report, titled Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey. Judge for yourself.

And here is a video from what’s probably my favorite Swedish band.