Skip to main content

Scientists used smartphones to test morality in the real world

Scientists used smartphones to test morality in the real world


Turns out, religion doesn't make you any more moral

Share this story

We’d all like to think that morality is cut and dry. But the truth is that many factors come into play when determining what each individual’s morality rests upon. Conservatives, for instance, tend to hold loyalty and purity in the highest regard, whereas liberals are more likely to base moral acts on caring and fairness. Yet, the only reason we know that these trends exist is because scientists tested various scenarios in controlled, laboratory settings to see how various groups of people react.

But a new study published today in Science has taken morality research out of the lab and into the streets, which means that we finally have an idea of how often humans encounter morally relevant situations and dilemmas in their every day lives. And, as it turns out, there's a lot more moral overlap between various groups — religious or nonreligious, for instance — than researchers previously thought.

"The methodology is really novel," says Dan Wisneski, a psychologist at Saint Peter's University and a co-author of the study. "A lot of previous moral and ethics studies have taken place in the lab, in a controlled setting, and although these are important, we wanted to take those findings and compare it against people's everyday moral reality."

In the study, 1252 American and Canadian adults answered surveys about their experiences with morality for a period of three days. The surveys were initiated by text message five times a day at random intervals, and each provided a link to a survey that asked participants if they had experienced, witnessed, performed or learned of a moral or immoral act in the last hour. If they had, they were asked to describe that event. And each time they submitted a survey, they were entered in a contest to win a prize.

Committing a moral act means you're likely to do let yourself do something wrong afterwards

Once the answers were submitted, the researchers assigned it a single, specific category, all of which were based on the "moral foundations theory" — a theory that bases morality on eight basic foundations, including fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty.

"We were able to take those open ended responses and code them," Wisneski says, by assigning a foundation to each description. "We tried to pick the ones that we thought fitted best," Wisneski says, but that wasn't always easy. "For example, if we decided to code ‘I cheated on my spouse,’ then we coded it as disloyalty. But it could have been coded as dishonesty as well." Ultimately, he explains, the research team opted to be consistent in their coding and to stick to the foundations’ definitions.

Immoral acts vary more widely than moral ones

And the results they’ve obtained so far are pretty revealing. For one thing, they found that the moral acts that people described tended to be based on caring, whereas immoral acts were more diverse and centered around harm, unfairness and dishonesty. The researchers also found that regardless of religious or nonreligious affiliation, participants responded positively to the survey and described a morally relevant situation about 29 percent of the time. "The main finding is that morally relevant phenomena happens fairly often," Wisneski says. "And being religious, or nonreligious, doesn’t change that frequency."

Moreover, the study was able to confirm what previous lab studies have found: that being the target of a morally positive act makes people more likely to commit one themselves, whereas committing a moral act subsequently gives people the license to do something morally reprehensible — a phenomenon called "moral self-licensing."

"The fact that these data bear out this effect is in everyday life is very interesting," says David Pizarro, a psychologist at Cornell University who didn't participate in the study. "It seems as if good moral deeds spread across people more than within people." Still, Pizarro is skeptical of the self-reporting aspect of the experiment. "Some of the main findings might not be due to the actual frequency of these acts in the real world, but simply to the fact that people are likely to report some acts instead of others."

"religious affiliation didn’t predict morally positive actions."

Wisneski says that this type of criticism is perfectly valid, but counters it by stating that there was no real incentive to present oneself in a favorable light. For example, some people readily admitted to infidelity during the three-day period. Moreover, he says, "some might say that by doing this study, we’re bringing [morality] to mind a lot," and therefore priming people to think of their life in moral terms more than they normally would. But in reality, the participants were "incentivized to under-report moral acts" because answering the survey negatively didn't take as long, and they were still entered in the contest. Thus, Wisneski thinks that it’s likely that the results are pretty representative of what humans of a certain economic status — humans who own smartphones, as was required of the study’s participants — experience on a regular basis.

"This is a novel, thoughtful and informative study," says Fiery Cushman, a psychologist at Harvard University. "The findings mostly corroborate theories that emerged from laboratory-based research, but there are a few surprises," like the fact that religious affiliation didn’t predict morally positive actions.

No word on whether smartphone preference is linked to morality

The researchers now plan to take an even deeper look into the huge data sets they've gathered. They'd like to look at other factors that might come into play in everyday life, such as socio-economic status. And other, quirkier questions might also be worth investigating, says lead author and University of Cologne psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann. We "did not look at correlates between smartphone [platforms] and demographics or predictors of moral experiences," he wrote in an email to The Verge, but that would "definitely be something to consider in future analyses." For now, however, we have to live without knowing if Windows phone users commit more moral acts than iPhone users.