Psychologists can influence people's moral choices by tracking their gaze

Posted on April 16, 2015

Photo: flickr

Where we look betrays what we're thinking. For instance, given a choice between two snacks, people spend longer looking at the alternative that they ultimately choose. A new study digs deeper into this process and asks: is gaze direction also related to moral choices, and does it actually influence those choices?

Twenty students donned an eye tracker and made a series of moral judgments. On each trial, the students heard a statement over headphones (e.g. "murder is sometimes justifiable") and then two options appeared on either side of a computer screen (e.g. "sometimes justifiable" on the left side, "never justifiable" on the right) – the students' task was simply to indicate by button press which of these options they believed. They were told they would be prompted to make this decision after a random amount of time had passed.

Daniel Richardson and his colleagues found that if they prompted the students to make their decision after they had looked at one of the options for at least 750ms (and the other for at least 250ms), then it was more likely than not the students would choose the option they'd spent more time looking at (59.6 per cent of the time they chose this option). This replicates previous research showing we tend to look more at our favoured option, even when making weighty moral choices. Yet, asked afterwards, the students were unaware there had been any link between the timing of the decision prompt and their eye gaze.

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Source material from The British Psychological Society