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Thinking of Science Strengthens Moral Fiber

• March 19, 2013 • 7:00 AM

First-of-its-kind research finds a surprising relationship between science and morality.

Want to be a better person? Spend more time thinking about science.

That’s the implication of newly published research, which finds people who study science—or even are momentarily exposed to the idea of scientific research—are more likely to condemn unethical behavior, and more inclined to help others.

“Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms,” report psychologists Christine Ma-Kellams of Harvard University and Jim Blascovich of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Their research is published in the online journal PLOS One.

The researchers describe four experiments, all conducted at UCSB, that back up their surprising conclusion.

The first featured 48 undergraduates who read a vignette describing a date rape. (In the story, John engages in “nonconsensual sex” with Sally.) They were then asked to judge John’s behavior on a scale from 1 (completely justified) to 100 (totally wrong).

After revealing some personal information, including their major, each participant finished the experiment by responding to the question, “How much do you believe in science?” on a one-to-seven scale.

The researchers found no relationship between the participants’ religiosity or ethnicity and their judgment of John’s actions. But science majors (including those studying biology, chemistry, and psychology) judged him more harshly than non-science majors.

In addition, “those who reported greater belief in science rated the date rape as more wrong,” the researchers write.

Three additional experiments involved putting the idea of science into people’s minds via a priming device. Participants were given 10 sets featuring five words apiece; they were instructed to throw one word out and arrange the other four to form a proper sentence. Half of them were given unscrambled sets of words that included such science-oriented terms as “logical,” “hypothesis,” “laboratory,” “scientists,” and “theory.”

One such group, consisting of 33 undergraduates, read the aforementioned date-rape vignette and expressed their judgment of John. Those who had the science-related words on their mind “condemned the act as more wrong” than those who had unscrambled the neutral words, the researchers report.

Another group, featuring 32 students and community members, were asked how likely they were to take part in a list of community-minded activities over the next month. Those who had been exposed to the science-related words expressed a greater likelihood to give blood, do volunteer work, and donate to charity.

A final group of 43 students and community members played an “economics dictator game” in which they were given $5 and told they could keep it all, or give some of it to a stranger. Those exposed to the scientific terms allocated less money to themselves and more to the other person.

On the surface, these results seems counterintuitive; science, after all, is—in the strictest sense—amoral. But Ma-Kellams and Blascovich argue that, in the popular imagination, it has a different connotation.

“We contend there is a lay image or notion of ‘science’ that is associated with concepts of rationality, impartiality, fairness, technological progress,” they write. “The notion of science contains in it the broader moral vision of a society in which rationality is used for the mutual benefit of all.”

In other words, science puts us in a frame of mind where we’re thinking in terms of the common good.

The researchers note that specific scientific findings (such as those questioning the concept of free will) can, and sometimes do, produce different outcomes. And they caution that their measures of morality are limited to issues of harm/care and fairness, as opposed to the other points on Jonathan Haidt’s compass (such as respect for authority and in-group loyalty).

Nevertheless, this is the first research to show that, in Ma-Kellams and Blascovich’s words, “the act of thinking about science itself produces important psychological consequences.” Important, and arguably even uplifting. Who knew Bill Nye, the Science Guy might be a spiritual teacher?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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