Skip to content

Why do People Express Moral Outrage?

Why do People Express Moral Outrage? published on

Evidence that expressions of moral outrage are in part self-serving.

Ethics and morality are commonly associated with altruism and pro-social behavior. From this perspective moral judgments are regarded as fundamentally selfless or at least group-oriented. When people express moral outrage at the transgressions of others, their expressions may arise from deep-seated intuitions or strongly-held values, but in either case it is assumed that the purpose or function of such expressions is to punish the transgressors and promote social cooperation. However, in this study, Paul Bloom and colleagues provide experimental evidence in support of a theoretical model according to which expressions of moral outrage are fundamentally selfish in nature. People who invest time and effort in condemning those who behave badly are trusted more. Thus, condemning transgressors for their bad behavior is a way of signalling to others that one is trustworthy, which can bring advantages to one in the long-run.

Original Source:
Jillian J. Jordan et al., Third-party punishment as a costly signal of trustworthiness, Nature, November 2015.

Summary description by authors:

Is Utilitarianism the Best Framework for Evaluating Lay Moral Judgments?

Is Utilitarianism the Best Framework for Evaluating Lay Moral Judgments? published on

Evidence that individuals who demonstrate utilitarian preferences to moral dilemmas show higher measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism and life-meaninglessness.

Studies show that the vast majority of people who respond to Thomson’s famous Footbridge dilemma would not choose the utilitarian option (of pushing a large man off the track to stop a train from running over five other people). But what about the approximately 10 percent of people who do favor the utilitarian option—what sort of people are they? To find out, Bartels and Pizarro recruited over 200 undergraduate students and had them respond to several sacrificial moral dilemmas and also answer a battery of questions designed to measure some of their psychological characteristics. Participants were asked to express their levels of agreement/disagreement to statements such as “I like to see fist-fights’’ (psychopathy), “When you really think about it, life is not worth the effort of getting up in the morning’’ (no Meaning), and ‘‘The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear’’ (Machiavellianism). The researchers found that participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions to the sacrificial moral dilemmas had higher scores on measures of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and life-meaninglessness. These results do not exactly show that utilitarianism is a flawed ethical theory, but they do suggest that there are two types of people attracted to utilitarian thinking: rationalists (i.e. those who favor rational deliberation in ethical decision-making) and psychopaths (i.e. those with a muted aversion to causing a person’s death).

Original Source:
Daniel M Bartels, David A. Pizarro, The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemma, Cognition, October 2011.

How Does Governmental Surveillance Change User Behavior?

How Does Governmental Surveillance Change User Behavior? published on

Evidence for deleterious effects of governmental surveillance on democratic discourse and expression of minority political views.

This study was set up to test the effect knowledge about governmental surveillance would have on participants’ (255 in total, sourced from a commercial survey firm) willingness to discuss and issue controversial and minority opinions. The participants were primed with the US’ continued airstrikes on ISIS as the political topic to be discussed and randomly selected to either be exposed to a message that would prime them to perceive themselves as under governmental surveillance or not. They were then asked to imagine coming across a (normatively neutral) post about the US airstrikes on ISIS in their Facebook news feed and asked about their perception of how other Americans would feel about this topic as well as their own willingness to publically express their own opinions on this topic, followed by questions about the extend they thought governmental surveillance was justified and their demographic information. While the results suggest a more nuanced effect than the often assumed blanket silencing, it does provide evidence that awareness of governmental surveillance significantly decreases participants’ willingness to express personal opinion within a hostile opinion climate for participants who approved of governmental surveillance as well as for those who disapproved, strongly suggesting a stifling effect on democratic discourse in general.

Original Source:
Elizabeth Stoycheff, Under Surveillance – Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, March 2016.

Is There A Neuroscientific Basis To Altruism?

Is There A Neuroscientific Basis To Altruism? published on

Evidence that certain brain-regions are strongly linked to altruistic behavior.

In this study, published in Social Neuroscience, Moore et al. use “continuous Theta Bust Stimulation (cTBS)” on a total of 58 subjects (30 female, 28 male), to temporarily disable, or at least dampen the activity in two parts of the prefrontal cortex, which had been linked to altruistic behavior in a previous study. To test the link, the participants were placed in an unsupervised Dictator Game, where they had to allocate money between themselves and players of high or low economic standing. Both tested areas of the prefrontal cortex resulted in an increase in generosity in general, but increasing generosity towards players with low and with high economic standing differentially–strongly suggesting that the cTBS-disabled areas of the brain exert an inhibitory influence on altruistic behavior in general and in more nuanced ways.

Original Source:
Christov-Moore, Leonardo, Taisei Sugiyama, Kristina Grigaityte, and Marco Iacoboni. Increasing generosity by disrupting prefrontal cortex. Social Neuroscience, just-accepted, 2016.

How Do Modern Technologies Impact Family Life? What Are Effective Strategies To Mediate The Effects?

How Do Modern Technologies Impact Family Life? What Are Effective Strategies To Mediate The Effects? published on

Both parents and children wish for less technology to interfere with their family matters and agree on certain effective strategies to achieve this.

This study is based on survey conducted with 249 families across 40 U.S. states, asking them about their opinions on the role and use of modern ICT technologies such as smart phones, tablets and their connection to social networks, in a family context. In their questions, the researchers put a particular emphasis on family-established technology rules and their respective effectiveness. Leading into the results on respective effectiveness, the researchers found that both parents and children acknowledge the need for rules around technologies in general as well as in particular contexts. While parents worries mostly about negative developmental effects (“they just cannot put it down”) and content related issues (no graphic images etc.), children particularly disagreed with parental practices of over-sharing information about them that they deemed private (childhood pictures, videos etc.). The rules reported in the study could roughly be divided into two broad categories: activity constraints (explicit rules against certain activities such as the sharing of nude pictures, the use of certain social media etc.) and context constraints (contextual rules such as homework first, then computer games, no texting at the table etc.). With regards to effective rules, the researchers found that collaborative creation of rules, based on shared ideological understanding and principles of fairness produces better rule-adherence in general. Nevertheless, regardless of perceived fairness of respective rules, they also found that children are significantly worse at following context constraints than they are at following activity constraints.

Original Source:
Hiniker, Alexis, Sarita Y. Schoenebeck, and Julie A. Kientz. Not at the Dinner Table: Parents’ and Children’s Perspectives on Family Technology Rules. Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing. ACM, 2016

Should Healthcare Systems be Privatized?

Should Healthcare Systems be Privatized? published on

Evidence that non-profit hospitals are superior to for-profit hospitals in both quality of care and cost.

While the privatization of healthcare systems around the world is an ongoing political battle with ethical ramifications, certain factual questions should be placed at the center of these debates. In particular, relative to healthcare delivered by non-profit institutions, what effect does the profit motive have on the quality and cost care? Two meta-analyses provide the basis for evidence-based answers to these questions. One of these (the first of the two cited below) was carried out by a team of 17 researchers, led by P.J. Devereaux from the department of clinical biostatistics and epidemiology at McMaster University in Canada. It examined 15 American studies comparing death rates in 26,000 for-profit and non-profit hospitals, including data on 38 million patients, between 1982 and 1995. The study found that the death rate in for-profit hospitals was two percent higher than in non-profit hospitals. The other relevant study, conducted by a group of 19 researchers also led by Deveraux, was based on 8 studies involving 350,000 patients at 324 hospitals. The study found that private for-profit hospitals result in significantly higher payments for care than private non-profit hospitals. Together these two studies provide powerful evidence that non-profit hospitals are superior to for-profit hospitals in terms of both the quality and cost of the medical care they provide, bolstering the case against further privatization of healthcare systems.

Original Sources:
1. Devereaux PJ, Choi PT, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies comparing mortality rates of private for-profit and private not-for-profit hospitals. Canadian Medical Association Journal 2002; 166(11): 1399-406.

2. Devereaux PJ, Heels-Ansdell D, et al. Payments for care at private for-profit and private not-for-profit hospitals: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Canadian Medical Association Journal 2004; 170(12): 1817–1824.

Does Religion Promote or Hinder Altruistic Behavior?

Does Religion Promote or Hinder Altruistic Behavior? published on

Evidence that altruism is negatively influenced by the religiosity of children’s households.

A team of psychologists from seven different countries (including Canada, the US, Turkey, South Africa, and China) evaluated 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries to assess the effects of religion on their altruistic behavior and their evaluations of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm. The study, published in the journal Current Biology (Vol 25, 2015), reports three findings: a) across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents; b) religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism; and c) religiousness was positively correlated with children’s punitive tendencies. The researchers claim that “these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.”

Original Source:
Jean Decety, Jason M. Cowell, Kang Lee, Randa Mahasneh, Susan Malcolm-Smith, Bilge Selcuk, Xinyue Zhou, The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World, Current Biology, Volume 25, Issue 22, 16 November 2015, Pages 2951-2955, ISSN 0960-9822.