Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Moral righteousness in trying times

Difficult times make you cling to moral norms.
Valkyrie movie posterLast week, I went to see Valkyrie at a local theater chain called the Alamo Drafthouse. One great aspect of the theater is that you can order food and drinks from your seat as you watch the film. In addition, for about 30 minutes before the film, they run quirky programming that is somehow related to the film you are about to see. For Valkyrie, they played a series of clips from documentary films and newsreels about Hitler's rise to power.

One in particular caught my attention. The film talked about how Hitler had fallen out of favor politically, and was able to rise back to power, because the German economy had gone sour. Hitler was able to capitalize on people's malaise to drive home his message of Aryan superiority and to cast a variety of groups like the Jews as the cause of evil in the world.

There is growing evidence that when people feel unsettled, they try to regain their psychological balance by striving to make their world feel more coherent. One way that people achieve this end is to cling more strongly to the moral norms of their culture. When they cling to these moral norms, they tend to punish people who transgress more heavily than they would when they feel in balance.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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