When we hear gossip that our next door neighbor has been bringing home prostitutes and burying them in the backyard, we don't rush to conclusions. Instead, we carefully collect and evaluate the evidence before reaching a conclusion. Right?
Billions of hours and government dollars have been devoted to protecting the nuclear family with one mother, one father, and 1.86 kids. Why? Because several prestigious people and agencies carefully evaluated the evidence to reach the conclusion that the welfare of children must come first (and anything other than a heterosexual household is corrosive). Right?
There is an antiquated idea that human beings are incredibly rational when it comes to moral decisions. Let me point out that more often than not, it is the reverse. We experience an automatic, immediate "gut feeling" that drives our moral judgments. Not unlike a doctor that smacks a rubber sledge hammer to your knee. Regardless of the mental willpower deployed, your leg jerks. We have intuitions that lead to moral judgments and then after the fact, we start deliberating on reasons for our conclusions.
Let me give you an example from the research of Dr. Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia. Someone asks you to sign the following form.
I, _____________________, hereby sell my soul, after my death, to ___TODD KASHDAN___, for the sum of __$20___.
Note: This form is part of a psychology experiment. It is NOT a legal or binding contract, in any way.
The vast majority of people refuse and forgo the cash. When asked why they will say its just plain wrong. And then the spin doctor within starts generating justifications. "Because $20 is not enough." "Because anyone who wants someone's soul is clearly going to do something evil with it." "Because its sacrilegious." The counterarguments fail to sway them: we can offer more money, how much will it take? The contract explicitly says it is non-binding. Rules for selling your soul are not part of any major religious text. In the end, people simply return to their initial reaction that they feel strongly against it and nothing will sway them.
We feel anxious, disgusted, or confused, we make a judgment, and then we reason. The purpose of reasoning is to convince ourselves and other people that we're right.
Consider another example that has implications for politics, law, and everyday decision-making. Imagine walking into a room to complete a single task. Read a few cases about people that did something wrong and rate how severe their punishment should be. There is a doctor who snorted a few too many lines of cocaine the night before a surgery and the next day, amputated the wrong leg of their patient. There is a retired firefighter growing marijuana in his basement and selling it to college kids. There is a single mother trying to make ends meet as a prostitute.
While reading about these wrongdoers and making moral judgments, you notice a nasty smell in the room. There is fresh dog feces on the carpet and you smell spoiled tuna fish. Answer this: Do you think your physical, emotional reaction to what is in the room impacts your moral judgments? Researchers continue to discover that inducing feelings of disgust leads people to conclude a particular moral action is wrong and their punishment should be particularly severe. That is, when you feel disgusting this sensation carries over into your judgments of other people. We are harsher. We are less compassionate. And most of all, we are being influenced by emotional reactions that have absolutely nothing to do with the people we are judging.
Want another bizarre finding? People washing their hands before dealing with a moral dilemma are kinder and more lenient than people who don't wash their hands. Same goes for people asked to read words such as "clean" or "pure." Feeling clean reduces the severity of moral judgments.
Immediate physical sensations can have an impact on how we behave toward other people and we don't even know it. All of this happens outside of conscious awareness.
Think about the implications of this research.
Remind me again, how do you justify being against gay marriage?
How much did "gut feelings" contribute to your reaction to a black man becoming president?
What smell was in the air the last time you contested a ticket in traffic court?
Knowledge of what influences our morality can be uncomfortable. This is not a bad thing. Be aware, explore this tension, and you are taking a step toward being mindful of what tilts moral judgments. What the world needs now is another mindless politician or activist like I need a hole in my head.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. For more about his talks and workshops, books, and research go to www.toddkashdan.com or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena