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How Do People Decide to Do the Right Thing?

Insights from the moral psychology of self-sacrifice for the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Ruth M.J. Byrne and Shane Timmons

Over three and a half billion people, half the world’s population, have been told to stay at home to reduce the spread of coronavirus. They will have to continue to do so for many more weeks and months as countries around the world try to come out of lockdown slowly and safely. Staying at home, for most of us, is a significant sacrifice: we are separated from our loved ones, families, and friends, and from the activities, entertainments, and environments we enjoy.

Most of us are staying at home to make sure we don’t pass the virus on to others, to protect ourselves and the people we live with, and to ensure our health services can help those who become most ill from the virus without becoming overwhelmed. But some people are choosing not to stay at home, and not to physically distance from others—teenagers and young adults who continue to gather, older adults who persist in visiting friends, and others who decide to disregard the expert advice. Is there anything that could convince them otherwise? And perhaps more pressingly, how can the dramatic changes to everyone’s daily behavior be sustained over the coming months as we learn to live with the presence of coronavirus?

Ruth Byrne
Social Distancing
Source: Ruth Byrne

Discoveries from research on the moral psychology of self-sacrifice provide some valuable insights. When people reason about whether or not to make a sacrifice, their thinking is prone to several cognitive biases. Understanding these biases provides some clues about how to convey the need for sacrifices, such as staying at home or physically distancing from others—clues that are helpful for communication not only between individuals, but also by government spokespeople and policymakers.

1. The moral hindsight effect. People judge that self-sacrifice is the right thing to do in just some situations. In studies at the reasoning and imagination lab, we asked people to decide whether a morally good action should have been taken, such as running into traffic to save a child. We compared situations in which people knew that the outcome had turned out well—for instance, the child was saved, to situations in which they didn’t know what the outcome was. The experiments reveal a “moral hindsight” effect—people reason that the good action should have been taken when they know it led to a good outcome, more so than when they’re uncertain about the outcome. And knowing the outcome turned out badly is as discouraging as not knowing the outcome.

Outcome biases such as these are pervasive, and the moral hindsight effect indicates that people judge good actions not simply by considering their goodness, but by trying to construct a causal model that links the action to its expected outcome. In the coming weeks and months, it will be crucial for people to hear about the positive outcomes of the self-sacrifices that they and others are making, to sustain their judgment that sacrifices should continue to be made.

2. The moral fatigue effect. People make different inferences and decisions when they are tired compared to when they are refreshed. The experience of “moral fatigue” is particularly relevant when people reason about sacrifices. In another set of studies, we asked people to read newspaper stories about situations in which someone had engaged in a dramatic self-sacrifice, such as jumping onto railway tracks to save a person who had fallen, and to judge whether the sacrifice was morally obligatory. We compared judgments made by people who had first carried out a cognitively tiring task to judgments made by people who were not tired. We found that people who were tired tended to think that self-sacrifices were less required than people who are not tired.

But importantly, moral fatigue can be overcome. When we asked people whether the sacrifice was obligatory, we framed the judgment to focus on the action (for example, whether the person was morally obliged to jump in front of the train) or to focus on the outcome (whether the person was morally obliged to save the man on the track). Although tired people are less likely to agree with making a moral sacrifice when they think about the sacrifice itself, the effects of tiredness are reduced when they think about the benefits. Focusing on good outcomes may be especially important when people become tired.

3. The counterfactual amplification effect. People often reason by thinking about the facts of a situation as they understand them, but they also often imagine alternatives to reality and think about how things could have been different. When something bad happens, say, a person is injured in a car accident, there is an irresistible allure to imagine how the situation could have been prevented, for example, “if only they had been driving more slowly…” Such counterfactual “if only” and “what if” thoughts help people to explain the past by identifying causes of the outcome, and they also help them to prepare for the future by providing a mental roadmap for intentions to avoid such an outcome again. Thoughts about how things could have turned out differently also amplify emotions such as regret, or relief—people think about how the situation turned out, and how it could have turned out differently, and in the comparison of the two, the emotion emerges.

People think not only about what could have happened differently but also what should have happened differently, and these thoughts influence their moral judgments of blame, fault, and responsibility. How people reason about self-sacrifice is influenced not only by their thoughts about what happened but also by their imagination of what could have and should have happened.

In our studies, we asked participants not only to think about the facts of a situation, such as a woman running into traffic to save a child, but also to imagine how things could have turned out differently, for example, that the child would have been seriously injured if the woman hadn’t run into the traffic. The results suggest that people decide a morally good action should have been taken when they can imagine that the outcome would have been worse if it hadn’t. An important emphasis over the next weeks will be that things would have been much worse if people hadn’t stayed at home—and that they will be much worse if people don’t continue to stay home.

Unfortunately, people may decide that a good action shouldn’t have been taken when they can imagine the outcome would have been just the same regardless. There’s a danger that people will think they don’t have to stay home if they can readily imagine that things will turn out the same even without their individual contribution.

4. Moral elevation and emulation effects. People can be encouraged to make sacrifices in various ways. Sharing memories and news of good things that other people have done for others, such as the doctors and nurses treating patients with COVID-19 or the members of the public who are trying to support them, is effective. Studies have shown that when people remember seeing or hearing about someone doing something good for someone else, they feel uplifted. Strikingly, their experience of “moral elevation” makes them want to emulate goodness themselves.

But moral hindsight applies here too: sharing stories of good things that other people have done that turned out well, such as the actions of healthcare workers that have saved lives, is crucial. In another series of experiments, we found that when people remembered someone doing something good that turned out well, it prompted them to act to help others—for example, they spontaneously volunteered to help the experimenter with a small task, or they took the option to donate some of their experimental payment to charity. But unfortunately, remembering good acts that did not turn out well did not have this positive effect.

The outcomes of the stories we chose to share matter. And imagining how they could have turned out differently also has an impact. The evidence indicates that when people remember good things that others have done and imagine how things would have turned out worse otherwise, they are prompted to form a general aspiration to do good things themselves.

5. Framing effects. How outcomes are framed affects the decisions people make. Some studies have asked people to choose between several programs to combat a disease, and they have worded the outcomes differently, either focusing on potential gains, such as the number of lives that would be saved, or potential losses. People make different decisions when they think about gains compared to losses—they tend to be more averse to taking risks when the outcomes are framed as gains. People may also be more inclined to take helpful actions following messages about what can be gained by their action. For example, studies on climate action have found that people indicate they are more positive towards mitigating actions when they hear what could be gained by them, rather than what could be lost without them.

Recent evidence highlights the kinds of framing that affects people’s decisions about staying at home during this pandemic. People are more motivated by concerns about spreading the virus than about getting it themselves. They report being more willing to socially distance when they focus on the risk that they could infect multiple other people, and especially when they consider the most vulnerable in the community who will be saved. Studies show that appeals to save the most vulnerable are as effective as fear messages about millions dying. Over the coming weeks and months, it will be important to focus on what will be gained by the current sacrifices: Staying home will prevent people from spreading the virus in their community and save the lives of the most vulnerable.

People are being asked to make sacrifices now, and to continue to make sacrifices during the coming weeks and months. Cognitive support for each other’s moral decision making, in particular to overcome well-known moral decision-making biases—and reminding each other why we are making our sacrifices—will be critical for tackling the coronavirus emergency successfully.

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