Gut Check: Researchers Develop Measures to Capture Moral Judgments and Empathy
C. Daryl Cameron , 1 Apr 17

Can moral sentiments be measured? James Willamor, CC BY-SA

Imagine picking up the morning newspaper and feeling moral outrage at the latest action taken by the opposing political party. Or turning the page and seeing people around the world suffering famine and heartbreak, and flinching with empathy at their pain.

One of the most fundamental tasks we have as social creatures is to figure out whom we can trust, whom we should help and who means us harm. These are questions that are central to morality in everyday life.

In our work, we use tools from psychology to better understand these gut-level moral reactions that matter for everyday life. My research focuses on two facets of morality: moral judgments and empathy for the pain of others. Below, I discuss two new behavioral measures I have developed with my colleagues to capture these moral sentiments.

Why not just ask people?

One way to get a sense for people’s moral beliefs is to simply ask them. A researcher could ask you to rate on a one-to-five scale how morally wrong is a particular action, such as assaulting someone. Or to report on how frequently you tend to have empathy for other people in everyday life.

Relying on self-reports for questions on morality may not be enough. Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen, CC BY-NC-ND

One potential problem with asking people to self-report their reactions is that these reports can be influenced by a lot of factors, especially when the topics are sensitive, such as morality and empathy. If people think their reputation is at stake, they may be very good at reporting what they think others want to hear.

So, sometimes self-reports will be useful, but sometimes people edit these reports to give a good impression to others. If you want to know who is likely to feel your pain, and not make “you” feel the pain, then relying on self-report, although a good start, may not always be enough.

A new measure of moral judgment

Rather than asking people what they think is moral, or how much empathy they feel, our work attempts to assess people’s immediate, spontaneous reactions before they have had much time to think at all. In other words, we examine how people behave to get a sense for their moral reactions.

For example, consider the new task that my collaborators and I developed to measure people’s gut reactions that certain actions are morally wrong. Gut reactions have been thought by many psychologists to play a powerful role in moral decision-making and behavior.

In this task, people go through a series of trials. In each trial, they see two words flash, one after the other. These words are actions typically thought either to be morally wrong or morally neutral. People are asked to judge whether the second words describe actions that are morally wrong, while avoiding being influenced by the first words. So, for example, in a particular trial, people might see “murder” immediately followed by “baking.” Their task is to judge whether “baking” is wrong while ignoring any influence of “murder.”

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