The Cutting Edge: Are we all immoral?

Would you cheat on an exam to secure a grade that gets you a scholarship? If you find a lost smartphone in the mall, would you keep it for yourself?

Although the majority of us would claim to never act in such ways if asked, the truth is that some of us do. Deception and transgression are fundamental facets of human behavior. So, what is it precisely that separates those who do and those who do not engage in immoral action?

Some individuals show immoral behavior at a very early age compared to others. Also, environmental influences like our family upbringing are major factors in our moral tendencies. But there is actually more to this question than the age-old nature versus nurture debate. What about the specific context of a given moral situation?

Let’s take an example. Is one worse than the other: stealing the midterm answer key from the professor’s desk, or knowing someone else is going to take it and not saying anything? The former is called “active” immoral behavior, whereas the latter is called “passive” immoral behavior in psychology research.

If you answered no, then you would expect people to act the same way, for the most part, in either circumstance. If both are equally immoral actions, then people who normally act morally should not engage in either – right?

You are in for a surprise. A recent study by Rimma Teper and Michael Inzlicht, psychologists at the University of Tronoto tested this question. They gave participants a computerized math test and told them that there was a glitch in the computer system. Participants in one condition were told that if they hit the space bar the answer would appear on the screen. In the other condition, subjects were informed that if they did not press the enter key five seconds after the problem loaded the right answer would pop up. The first condition was intended to mimic active immoral behavior (i.e., stealing the answer key) and the second condition passive immoral behavior (i.e., not telling the professor).

Interestingly, subjects were significantly more likely to cheat on the test in the passive versus the active behavior condition. That is to say, when doing the wrong thing was left to inaction, people did not seem to have nearly as much trouble with it as when it required intentional behavior.

Do these same principles apply to moral or altruistic actions as well? Teper and Inzlicht also tested this question. In the first condition, a message popped up on participants’ computer screens that asked them if they would help a disabled person work on a school test, and were given only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box to check. This condition was intended to mimic active moral behavior. Participants in the second condition had a button to click to help others as well, but they were not required to click yes or no to complete their task. This condition intended to mimic passive moral behavior.

The results for moral behavior turned out to be the opposite of immoral behavior. People forced to actively choose whether they would aid someone in need were five times more likely, not less likely, to offer assistance than those who could skip the question!

Taken together these studies indicate that when we have to act deliberately, we tend to choose altruism, but given some grey area, we may choose immorality. So it seems that if we want to be honest with ourselves, we have to consider that the things we do not do may be as important as things we actually do in our moral lives.

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