In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Ohio State University doctoral student Andrew Luttrell and his team hypothesized that the people or causes we most admire share a common trait: They're connected to our sense of morality, a psychological shield against outside attacks. As in: Oh, you disagree with me? Well, I won’t be swayed because I’m standing up for what’s right.
The researchers wanted to see if a person’s opinion grew stronger or was more likely to withstand challenges if their viewpoint was declared to be “moral.” So, they set up a series of experiments with three groups of roughly 100 participants.
Luttrell and his colleagues gave the first group, all college students, information about a new senior exam policy and asked them to write down their thoughts. Next, the participants, separated by partitions, received printed “feedback” on their opinions. Some were told their ideas on the phony exam policy reflected “tradition.” Others heard their ideas projected “morality.”
"While your thoughts were similar to other students' on a variety of dimensions, you seem to have based your thoughts about senior comprehensive exams on morality/tradition more than the average student."
Simply telling someone their attitude was moral, Luttrull found, gave it more power. Compared to those in the "tradition" group, the participants who heard their thoughts reflected morality were more likely to say they’d sign a petition to support the bogus policy, put their name on a list of students who support the policy and vote in favor of the policy. They marked their interest in these actions on a scale of one to nine:
The group’s consensus: Recycling is generally a good thing. After respondents wrote down their individual thoughts and took the same nine-point tests, they received feedback on their recycling beliefs. Some heard their views were “practical.” Others heard “moral.”
Then the researchers tried to change everyone’s mind. They slipped respondents a note that said recycling puts more cars on the road and encourages pollution.
People's attitudes in the "morality" group and "practicality" group didn't significantly differ before they read the anti-recycling message. But afterward, a post-test revealed the "moral" respondents viewed recycling more favorably (7.56 on a nine-point scale) than the "practical" respondents (6.88).
“Those led to believe that their recycling attitudes were grounded in morality were more resistant to the anti-recycling message than those led to believe that their attitudes were grounded in practicality,” the authors wrote.
The takeaway, according to Luttrell: Framing a cause as "moral" is a smart tactic for politicians and advocates. Any issue, it appears, can be viewed through the morality lens, which is why we'll be probably fighting about politics forever.
"Is moral a magic word?" he said. "In some ways, it might be. We grow up thinking morality is this thing that's untouchable. What's moral is permanent and cannot be challenged."
More on Wonkblog: