People often tweak moral values in self interest

Posted on November 3, 2014

Previous research emphasizes people’s personalities, genes, and upbringing as the main source of moral values and disagreements about morality. However, new research found that people also adjust their moral values depending on which principle benefits them the most. In fact, our moral principles are more flexible and self-serving than we would like to admit.

For the study, entitled “Equity or equality? Moral judgments follow the money,” participants worked in pairs to transcribe a paragraph for a cash reward.

One participant was the “typist” who transcribed three paragraphs and the other was the “checker” who transcribed one paragraph, selected randomly from the typist’s paragraphs. If the two partners’ transcriptions matched, then they together earned a cash reward.

It was the typist’s job to decide how to divide the money. He or she could divide the money evenly (50 percent each) or according to the work each person did (75 percent for the typist who transcribed three paragraphs and 25 percent for the checker who transcribed one paragraph).

Most typists took the larger share of the reward, consistent with self-interest. But it wasn’t only the typists that acted in self interest. Participants also rated the morality and fairness of each division rule: equality (equal payoffs) or equity (payoffs proportional to work).

Furthermore, when the researchers measured moral values before and after participants were assigned to roles, people were caught in the act: Their moral values changed in a few minutes to favor the rule according to the job they were given.

Pursuit of self-interest is tempered, however, by the constraints of coordination. People seek not only to benefit themselves but also to persuade other people that they are morally right in doing so.

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Source material from Psych Central