Sleight-of-hand causes a moral reversal

Just over half of participants in survey of moral opinions argued for the reverse of what they first claimed when their answers were secretly switched.

The thoroughly delightful study is open-access from PLOS One but is also described in a news piece for Nature.

The researchers, led by Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden, recruited 160 volunteers to fill out a 2-page survey on the extent to which they agreed with 12 statements — either about moral principles relating to society in general or about the morality of current issues in the news, from prostitution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

But the surveys also contained a ‘magic trick’. Each contained two sets of statements, one lightly glued on top of the other. Each survey was given on a clipboard, on the back of which the researchers had added a patch of glue. When participants turned the first page over to complete the second, the top set of statements would stick to the glue, exposing the hidden set but leaving the responses unchanged.

Two statements in every hidden set had been reworded to mean the opposite of the original statements. For example, if the top statement read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the word ‘forbidden’ was replaced with ‘permitted’ in the hidden statement.

Participants were then asked to read aloud three of the statements, including the two that had been altered, and discuss their responses.

About half of the participants did not detect the changes, and 69% accepted at least one of the altered statements.

Don’t miss the video of the ‘trick questionnaire’ in action.
 

Link to Nature News coverage of the study.
Link to full text of study.

5 Comments

  1. anyb
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Maybe participants simply did not want to admit they misread the question.

  2. Posted September 21, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Scary! Could it be argued that this reflects a kind of thoughtlessness when answering these types of questionnaires and when forming opinions based on tv news stories? If a participant had *actually* experienced surveillance by the government of an (innocent) email, I assume they’d have a more vigilant response.

  3. iotamchippus
    Posted September 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the survey takers didn’t want to waste any more time correcting the wrong answers thinking there was something weird with how the questions had been written in the first place to have elicited a completely incorrect answer.

    I bet the recognition of mistakes and alterations back to reflect the true opinions of the survey takers would be significantly raised if the survey collector represented some actual significant character in their lives, like a boss or some such.

  4. bnjm
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Maybe it indicates how easy it is for most people to accept alternative positions on problems of moral complexity, once the problems are expressed from alternative perspectives.

    Not all moral questions are black and white with easy solutions. So it’s probably advantageous that people are open to change their position on the complex ones.

    If they switched the wording around on something morally obvious, like on the statement that “unjustified acts of violence on innocent people are always [wrong /right],” you wouldn’t get anyone defending the clearly reprehensible choice.

  5. bnjm
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Should have added the word “but” in there. As in:

    But, if they switched the wording around on something morally obvious, like on the statement that “unjustified acts of violence on innocent people are always [wrong /right],” you wouldn’t get anyone defending the clearly reprehensible choice.

    So, my point is to say that there are some black and white moral choices and testing them in this study would likely get very different results from the morally complex or morally ambiguous problems.


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