Consciousness Blog 05 March 2011

Most humans consider that they behave (or not!) according to a code of morality, and most of them would also claim to be able both to describe key aspects of their morality and to predict their behaviour in a situation involving moral choices.

Study of the operation of consciousness throws a lot of doubt on this assertion of moral transparency on the part of humans, and recent research backs up the idea that moral behaviour may not be as understandable or predictable as people would like to pretend.

Rimma Teper, Michael Inzlicht, and Elizabeth Page-Gould of the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) have published a study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, which sets out to test the difference between moral forecasting and moral action. In this test, behaviour was more moral than predicted by participants; but lead author Teper says: "There has been other work that has shown the opposite effect—that people are acting less morally" than they forecast. And co-author Michael Inzlicht comments: "This time, we got a rosy picture of human nature. But the essential finding is that emotions are what drive you to do the right thing or the wrong thing."

"If the stakes were higher—say, the reward was $100—the emotions associated with that potential gain might override the nervousness or fear associated with cheating," says Teper. In future research, "we might try to turn this effect around" and see how emotion leads people to act less morally than they forecast.

But as Inzlicht says, the real message from this study is that emotions play a prominent role in the delivery of moral behaviour. In many situations only the most extreme emotions make themselves known to consciousness; instead, they normally do their work unfelt, and the subject will often be quite unaware of the role they have played in his behaviour (one case where it would be wrong to say 'her!).

Read more in Chapter Eight of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Con of Consciousness; The Illusion of Individuality


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