A Blog Post on Morality in Everyday Life

Recently my colleagues and I – lead by Wilhelm Hofmann (University of Cologne), Dan Wisneski (Saint Peter’s University), and Linda Skitka (University of Illinois, Chicago) – published a paper about the everyday experience of morality [pre-print PDF].

This post includes a few useful links and comments on the research. But first, the abstract.

The Abstract: The science of morality has drawn heavily on well-controlled but artificial laboratory settings. To study everyday morality, we repeatedly assessed moral or immoral acts and experiences in a large (N = 1252) sample using ecological momentary assessment. Moral experiences were surprisingly frequent and manifold. Liberals and conservatives emphasized somewhat different moral dimensions. Religious and nonreligious participants did not differ in the likelihood or quality of committed moral and immoral acts. Being the target of moral or immoral deeds had the strongest impact on happiness, whereas committing moral or immoral deeds had the strongest impact on sense of purpose. Analyses of daily dynamics revealed evidence for both moral contagion and moral licensing. In sum, morality science may benefit from a closer look at the antecedents, dynamics, and consequences of everyday moral experience.

Helpful links

  • Data for the project are here.
  • The service we used to contact (and re-contact) participants on their smartphones was SurveySignal.
  • Jesse Graham was invited to publish a Perspective in Science about our paper. It can be found here (gated).
  • Helpful analysis on the Your Morals Blog about how our work fits into the broader trends and findings in morality science.
  • NYTWired, and Science all provide nice and accessible summaries
  • Additional coverage can be found in The Verge, Pacific Standard 1 and 2, LiveScience, and Scientific American.
  • Co-author extraordinaire, Dan Wisneski, talking with Marketplace Tech.
  • ….more as they come in…

In this paper we used an experience-sampling methodology, which means that we contacted participants on their smartphones several times a day for three days about their moral experiences. This helps us understand how people experience morality in a relatively naturalistic setting, their everyday lives. Some key findings from the paper

  • People report morally relevant events approximately 30% of the time.
  • People tend to report that they behave in more moral compared to immoral ways.
  • At the same time, people tend to notice the immoral compared to the moral things other people do.
  • Religious and non-religious participants do not differ in the number of moral or immoral behaviors they report.
  • But religious participants did express stronger emotions after committing both moral and immoral acts.
  • The five foundations of morality proposed by Moral Foundations Theory (.pdf) captures about 80% of the spontaneously generated content of the participants in our study (Harm/Care captured the most).
  • Which means that additional domains of liberty, honesty, and self-discipline were necessary to capture the remaining events.
  • Liberals and conservatives did report moral and immoral acts with different moral foundations, but these differences were not huge.
  • Being the target of a moral act was especially associated with happiness, but committing a moral act was especially associated with purpose in life.

Hofmann, W., Wisneski, D. C., Brandt, M. J., & Skitka, L. J. (2014) Morality in everyday life. Science, 23, 582-588. [PDF | replication package]

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