Why your moral compass is more pliable than you think

We like to think our moral fiber is woven tightly with strong ideas about right and wrong. But research shows that our minute-by-minute ethicality is somewhat loose—and highly responsive to external cues. Even seemingly trivial things like faint smells or changes in lighting can rejigger our compasses by reminding us of meaningful metaphors; in fact, our minds may naturally base abstract concepts like morality on simpler, body-based experiences. A flurry of new research shows just how shakable our judgment can be.


Nancy Ryerson, LMHCNancy Ryerson, LMHC is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who provides therapy to children (6+), adolescents, adults, couples, families and groups. I have experience working with a wide range of diagnoses, including: Addiction, Personality Disorders, ADHD, Mood and Anxiety Disorders, Trauma, and Domestic Violence.

Editor: Muhammad Talha


Next to Godliness

An antiseptic wipe may clear your way to immaculate ethics, according to a recent study from the University of Toronto. People who have just cleaned their hands are more likely to deem controversial social issues (such as pornography and recreational drugs) immoral than those in a control group are. And participants who picture themselves impeccably groomed (clean hair, clothes, fingernails) also bring down a firmer hand of justice.

The "Eww" Factor

He who smelt it, dealt it—harsh judgment, that is. In a study reported in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, folks considered controversial decisions, from driving to work instead of walking to legalizing marriage between first cousins. Those who sat near a trash can that had been spritzed with novelty fart spray were more likely to judge the scenes immoral. "When people experience a certain emotion—in this case, disgust—they misinterpret the feeling as being related to what they're thinking about at the moment," says study author Simone Schall. Drinking a distasteful beverage can have the same effect: A separate study found that people who sipped a bitter drink were harsher moral judges than counterparts who drank berry punch or water.

See No Evil

Maybe justice really is blind. Shutting your eyes while listening to descriptions of typically kind or wicked deeds intensifies judgment in both directions: Close-eyed judges rated moral scenes as more ethical and immoral scenes as less ethical than open-eyed judges did. It may be that closing our lids helps us envision a scene, leading to more emotional engagement. "People often base their judgments on their emotional responses," says researcher Eugene M. Caruso of the University of Chicago. "The more outraged I am by a transgression, for instance, the more morally wrong I think that action is."

Whereas closing our eyes slips us onto a high horse, putting on sunglasses can lead to dastardly behavior. Folks who don shades while playing a cooperation game act more selfishly, research in Psychological Science shows. Even dimming the lights brings out our dark side—people in dimmed rooms are more likely to cheat on a test to earn money than those in bright light. Working under cover of darkness may make us feel more anonymous—and more entitled to misbehave.

Courtesy: PsychCentral

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