Ethics in the Field

Many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos present ideas produced by the new research field of behavioral ethics, which studies why people make the ethical (and unethical) decisions that they do. Much of the research comes from behavioral psychology and the “heuristics and biases” research stream created by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his late co-author Amos Tversky. Jesse Graham calls this general area of research “the science of morality” and points out that it receives contributions from several research fields, including social psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, experimental philosophy, and cultural anthropology.

Much of the research in behavioral ethics comes from sophisticated laboratory experiments. These are generally cleverly designed and carefully executed, but they remain laboratory experiments. After many versions of similar experiments produce similar results, it is sensible to accept these results, even though they are based in experimental settings that might be viewed as artificial.

For those of us who believe that the findings of behavioral ethics are generally consonant with our life experiences, it is heartening to digest the results of a recent paper entitled “Morality in Everyday Life,” by Wilhelm Hofman, Daniel Wisneski, Mark Brandt, and Linda Skitka. The article was published in the September 12, 2014 issue of Science. These scientists took the theories of behavioral ethics out of the laboratory and into the field. They used “ecological momentary assessment” methodology. In short, they called subjects on their cell phones from time to time and asked them questions to reveal how they were making moral judgments, how their moral experiences differed from individual to individual and group to group, and what the psychological implications of the morally “good” or “bad” life are. The sample involved 1252 adults of various ages from the U.S. and Canada. Each participant was randomly contacted via his or her cell phone five times daily over a three-day period.

The article is short and well worth a read. It reveals that the study confirmed several laboratory findings illustrated in our Ethics Unwrapped videos. For example, the study found support for the Conformity Bias, the tendency of people to take their signals for proper conduct from those around them. People do often mimic the good (and bad) behavior of those around them…what is sometimes called Moral Contagion.

The study also found support for Moral Equilibrium and its components—moral licensing and moral compensation. As indicated in our video, people who perform a moral act are more likely to then give themselves license not to live up to their own moral standards by doing a bad deed or just not doing a good deed that they might well otherwise have done.

Other findings were that people’s political ideology was reliably associated with their moral values, that religious and nonreligious people were generally equally moral in their actions, that moral acts were associated with higher levels of momentary happiness, and that doing good lends purpose to people’s lives.

Professor Jonathan Haidt’s observation about the study is worthy of serious reflection: “My view is that moral psychology is the operating system of human social life. To the extent that we’re able to interact with strangers it’s because we create these dense webs of moral norms and then we judge each other relentlessly on them and know that we’ll be judged, and that’s what makes it all work.”

The results coming from behavioral ethics research tend to be interesting and even fun to read. But Professor Haidt reminds us that the study and teaching of human morality is incredibly serious business—it is the stuff of human society.



Jesse Graham, Morality Beyond the Lab, 345 Science 1242 (Sept. 12, 2014).

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2012).

Wilhelm Hofman et al., Morality in Everyday Life, 345 Science 1340 (Sept. 12, 2014).

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2014).

Daniel Kahneman et al., Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (1982).

Greg Miller, Using Smart Phones to Track Our Everyday Moral Judgments, New York Times, Sept. 11, 2014.

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