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Science correlates with morality

Happy scientistsEveryone likes science. Science gives us cures for deadly diseases, better transportation, and, of course, toys. But while science clearly has immense practical value, it may also have moral value. That is, thinking about science may prime the brain to act in more morally responsible ways. Research by psychologists Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich suggests a correlation between belief in science and moral behavior.

The psychologists conducted a series of four studies to test the relationship between scientific belief and moral action. The first two studies looked at interpersonal violations, the third at pro-social intentions, and the fourth at economic ethics.

The first study gathered 48 undergraduate participants to read a date rape vignette. In this vignette, John and Sally return to Sally’s home after a date, and while alone with her John proceeds to force himself upon her. The participants read this story and then rated the wrongness of John’s behavior on a scale from 1-10. Lastly, they rated how much they believe in science on a scale from 1-10. Not only did greater belief in science correlate with greater condemnation of John’s actions, but being a science major also correlated with greater condemnation. Furthermore, no other variable correlated with rating John’s actions.

The second study continued the theme of interpersonal violations, but rather than noting their belief in science at the end of the study, some random participants would now be primed with scientific thoughts. All participants would have to unscramble words in order to complete sentences. In the group primed with science-related concepts, the sentences they used contained words such as “logical,” “hypothesis,” “laboratory,” “theory,” and “scientists,” while the other group’s sentences had neutral words like “shoe” and “paper.” The second study received 33 undergraduate participants who read the same rape vignette from the first study. As expected, those primed with science terms expressed greater moral condemnation of John.

The next (third) study looked at pro-social intentions. It found 32 volunteers from Santa Barbara county, California (average age of 20). The same priming method used in the second study was used here as well, only instead of reading the rape vignette, these participants completed a pro-social intentions survey as well as rating the likelihood of them donating to charity, giving blood, and volunteering. Like the second study, the participants primed with science terms showed increased moral intentions (in this case, greater stated willingness to give to charity, give blood, and volunteer).

The fourth and final study investigated economic morality. Its 43 undergraduate participants played an economics game where each received five one-dollar bills that they then could distribute in any way they saw fit between themselves and an anonymous person. Since the participants have absolute control over monetary allocation and would actually keep the money afterwards, this study tested actual moral behavior (although, unknown to them, everyone would receive five dollars in the end). Unlike the previous studies, gender played a statistically significant role: females gave themselves more money than males. After controlling for gender, the science-prime group still gave less money to themselves.

In all of the studies, increased belief in science (or science priming) correlated with increased moral behavior (or indications that one would behave morally). To be fair, some of the words chosen in the priming experiments (studies two, three, and four) could apply to non-scientific fields: “logic” and “theory” matter just as much in philosophy and history as in the sciences. Science certainly needs logic and theory, but one should not confuse these with science itself. For science to hog all positive academic qualities for itself would not be very moral.

For more, see “Does ‘Science’ Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior” in PLoS ONE.

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