Philosophers and observers of human behavior have noticed that people often make moral claims that they cannot live up to. There are countless examples of scandals involving religious and political leaders who talk publicly about living up to high moral standards, but whose personal lives do not measure up. These observations have spurred a number of lines of psychological research.
In 1997, Jonathan Baron and Mark Spranca focused on a particular kind of moral statement people make called a protected value. A protected value is a moral line that people say they simply will not cross. For many people, for example, abortion crosses a protected value of the sanctity of human life. For these people, they simply will not accept any violation of this value. A key sign that a protected value is threatened is that people experience a sense of moral outrage.
This strong reaction to violations of a protected value are felt most strongly when the value is challenged directly. In fact, research by Julie Irwin and Jonathan Baron in 2001 suggests that even people who hold a particular protected value will make tradeoffs related to it when they are not asked about it directly.
In their studies, some participants were people who expressed a protected value for saving the rainforest. When faced directly with the opportunity to purchase furniture made from wood harvested from the rainforest, these participants were unwilling to do so. However, if participants with this protected value were asked about how much money they would spend for a variety of pieces of furniture (some of which contained wood from rainforests), almost all of them expressed a price that they would actually be willing to pay. So, when the protected value was not made overt in the choice, it had a much weaker effect on people’s behavior.
Even in less extreme circumstances, people’s beliefs about their behavior often do not match their actual behavior. An interesting paper by Oriel FeldmannHall, Dean Mobbs, Davy Evans, Lucy Hiscox, Lauren Navrady, and Tim Dalgleish published in Cognition in 2012 explores this issue. They compared performance in hypothetical and real moral situations.
The studies focused on a game called Pain vs. Gain. In this game, one participant is given £20. A second participant is strapped into a chair where they will be given moderately painful electric shocks. On each of the 20 trials of the game, the participant can pay up to £1 to minimize the severity of the shock. If they give up 1£, then the other participant receives no shock at all. If they give up nothing, then the participant receives the most painful shock.
In the hypothetical version, the game is described to people, and they are asked how much money they would keep. In this condition, participants predict they will keep about £1.50. This prediction reflects people’s general belief that they do not want to cause harm to other people.
In the real version of the game, participants actually played the game. At the start of the study, they met a second participant who was assigned to receive the shocks. They got to experience a mild shock to get a sense of what the other participant might feel. On each trial, they made responses on a computer of how much money they would give up on that trial using a slider to pick a value between £0 and £1. Then, they saw the effects of the shock on the other participant by video. In actuality, the other participant was a confederate who was never actually given a shock, but was acting as though they had. In this version of the experiment, participants actually kept about £12.50. In this study, the data from a participant was only used if that participant believed that the study was real and the other participant had actually received the shocks.
So, people’s actual behavior differed quite a bit from what they would predict they would do.
In a second study, the researchers explored ways to make people’s predictions more accurate. They reasoned that people have a hard time simulating what it is like to be faced with this choice, and so they fall back on a general rule like “don’t harm other people” to predict what they would do. In this study, they created three other hypothetical versions of the game.
In one, the game was described in great detail, and participants were asked how much money they thought they would keep. In this case, participants thought they might keep about £4. In another version, the game was described, and participants actually played all 20 rounds of the game. In this case, they kept about £8. In a third condition, participants went through the entire scenario of meeting another participant and getting a sample shock, but then, they were told to imagine that the other participant was connected to the shock. Then, they played all 20 rounds of the game. In this case, participants kept about £12, which is about what the participants playing the real game kept.
This research is related to a lot of work on the consistency between people’s attitudes and their behaviors. In essence, it is hard to predict what you are going to do in a situation if you are not experiencing that situation. When you say what you are going to do in a situation, you are making your best guess about it. However, it is hard for you to simulate all of the other factors that are going to influence your behavior. As a result, your predictions are often inaccurate. So, if you want to be as accurate as possible in predicting your future behavior, make the circumstances in which you make the prediction as similar as possible to the situation in which you will be acting.