The science of morality has drawn heavily on well-controlled but artificial stimuli to test hypotheses, such as the class Trolley problem. Researchers ask people, for example, whether it morally appropriate to push a fat man off a bridge to his certain death, if by doing so, you prevent a run-away trolley from running over 5 workers. But how well does studying trolley problems or other kinds of exotic dilemmas speak to how people think about morality in their everyday lives?
Together with Wilhem Hofmann (U. of Cologne), Dan Wisneski (a former graduate student at UIC, currently at St. Peters University) and Mark Brandt (Tilberg University), we decided to embark on the study of everyday morality-- that is, to move morality science out of the lab and into the street, office, home, bar, or wherever people happen to be whenever they were randomly prompted by their Smart phone to respond. We prompted a large sample of participants to record any moral or immoral events they experienced--that is, acts that they committed or were the target of, that they witnesses directly, or that they heard about. Moral experiences were quite frequent-- about 30% of the time, participants indicated they had noticed something moral or immoral in the last hour. People reported committing and receiving many more moral than immoral acts-- in other words, people tend to both do and encounter more good than bad in their everyday lives. That said, people learn about twice as many immoral than moral acts of others--in short, people attend to others’ misbehavior than they do their good behavior. Being treated morally increases happiness, and treated immorally decreases it. Personally engaging in moral acts increased people’s sense of meaning and purpose in life. Among other findings, this study revealed that the religious and non-religious were equally likely to commit moral and immoral acts. The religious, however,reported stronger positive emotional reactions to behaving morally, and stronger negative emotions to reacting immorally.
Our research team intends to use the same experience sampling methods to study a variety of other psychological phenomena as i plays out in people’s everyday lives going forward. Controlled laboratory experimentation is very important-- but it is equally important to have knowledge of how people experience the things we study in the context of their everyday lives.
For more details, see Hofmann, W., Wisneski, D. C., Brandt, M. J., & Skitka, L. J. (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science, 345, 1340 – 1343 (scroll down until you find the correct citation) and commentaries on this work here and here.