December 7, 2021 Leave your thoughts

new paper: Many heads are more utilitarian than one

Anita Keshmirian

Ludwig Maximilian Universität

Do you often see your friends, family members, colleagues, or strangers talking about highly debated moral issues in passionate discussions? Do you often wonder if these heated moral debates would change your or other’s mind? In our new paper, we examined how social interaction affects moral judgments.

What did we measure?

Participants in our study had to evaluate difficult moral decisions – let’s call them moral dilemmas. Each moral dilemma presented a utilitarian action: someone breaks a moral norm to benefit many. For example, Sara holds on to a secret instead of informing her happily-married friend that her partner has been cheating on her to prevent a divorce. Was Sara’s decision morally acceptable? Participants had to answer similar questions: first alone, then together (after a 3 min debate) and finally, they revisited their first responses (Figure 1). We wanted to know how people make moral judgments together, and whether group interactions could change their initial moral judgments.

Figure 1. Participants read each scenario alone and responded individually to all items, then were asked to discuss half of the items in groups to provide a collective judgment and finally responded again to all of the items alone

What did we predict?

Social context is a very peculiar situation. According to the previous research, it has can change our morals in, at least, three different ways:

1. In social contexts, when we know that people are watching us, we tend to give them a hint that “we are good people”. We do not want to be seen as violators, liars, etc. even if these lies benefit many. People showed fewer utilitarian views when they know that others were watching them. This is related to a phenomenon called “virtue signaling”. Our virtue Signaling hypothesis (VS), therefore, predicted fewer utilitarian judgments in groups. But this effect was not expected to change individual judgments after the discussion (well, there is no virtue signaling when no one is around).

2. Accepting norm violation as moral actions (even if it benefits many) is stressful to us. Social context reduces the stress of norm violation: when we are in a group, it is more likely that we violate the norms. We may feel less responsible for the outcome when the decision is made by – not only us – but many others.  We may feel less regret or stress. Reduction of stress in individuals led to a utilitarian boost. If this is the case in individuals, then why not in groups? Therefore, our Stress Reduction hypothesis (SR) predicted a utilitarian boost in collective judgments, but similar to VS, this boost was not expected to change the individual judgments.

3. Social context has another interesting feature: it allows us spend more time and share resources to reason better. More time and more reasoning both led to more utilitarian judgments. Therefore, our Social Deliberation hypothesis (SD) predicted a utilitarian boost in collective judgments (Similar to SR). However, unlike in SR, this boost was expected to be long-lived (when you are convinced to change your mind about something by pure reasoning, you don’t just change your it back to your previous judgments).

Figure 2. Left. (VS) predicts fewer utilitarian judgments in collective conditions. Middle: Conversely, (SR) predicts a utilitarian boost in collective judgments, but this boost is not expected to change the individual judgments. Right: Similar to (SR), (SD) predicts a utilitarian boost in collective judgments. However, unlike in (SR), this boost is expected to be followed by private individual judgments after the discussion.

What did we observe?

 Individuals varied in their initial judgments, but after discussion, they converged collectively to more utilitarian judgments. When returning to their private judgment, they abandoned this utilitarian boost – this was compatible with the stress reduction hypothesis (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Utilitarian scores (vertical axis) and different conditions across groups (each data point). Collective judgments are significantly higher than the first and the second conditions (left), compatible with the SR hypothesis (right).

We did not see any difference between individual judgments before and after the discussion. This means that participants did not change their minds after the collective decisions. We measured the stress level of each participant in each condition after responding to moral dilemmas. Participants reported less stress after collective conditions than individual judgments in the first condition.

What did we conclude?

We found that collective judgments were more utilitarian than individual judgments. This change of moral mind was short-lived: people did not change their individual opinion after the discussions. They also reported less stress in collective conditions.

The main take home message is that, many heads are more utilitarian than one, and this could be partially explained by stress reduction in groups.

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