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People Think Popular Actions Are the Right Actions

The way people generate explanations influences what they believe is ethical.

Vimukthi via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Vimukthi via Wikimedia Commons

How do people figure out what they should be doing? In some cases, people develop a complex set of values to guide their judgments. Vegans place a strong value on the lives of people and animals, and that guides their choices of what to eat, what to wear, and even where to shop. Gun-rights activists value free access to firearms, and that guides their personal choices about gun ownership as well as their support of politicians, laws, and organizations.

In many cases, though, people’s ethical judgments about actions are not guided by explicit thoughts about values. Instead, we draw on knowledge about the way the world is to make assumptions about the way the world should be. That is, we typically assume that what people do frequently is the right thing to do. For example, people frequently dress their boy children in blue and their girl children in pink, and so many people assume that is simply the right thing to do.

Why does the prevalence of an action lead to a belief that the action ought to be done? This question was explored in a paper in the August 2016 issue of Psychological Science by Christina Tworek and Andrei Cimpian.

These researchers suggest that the tendency to assume frequent actions are the appropriate ones comes from the way people typically generate explanations. Previous research documents an inherence bias, in which people explain events based on the (inherent) properties of the objects and people that engage in those events.

In an example the authors use in their paper, they point out that many people assume that roses are a frequent gift for Valentine's Day because of the properties of roses (they are pretty and smell nice). However, roses became a popular flower on Valentine's Day in large part because they are sturdy and easy to import in February from countries that have warm climates.

Explanations that involve these inherent properties make it hard for people to imagine that the world could be any other way than it is. If you assume that roses are popular on Valentine's Day because they pretty and romantic, then it would be hard to imagine a world in which some other flower (or gift for that matter) was actually what people should give. As a result, you assume that giving roses on Valentine's Day is the right thing to do.

In a series of studies with adults and children, the researchers compared people’s explanations to their beliefs that what is popular is right. The more that people’s explanations for events focused on properties of objects rather than elements of the environment, the more that people tended to assume that popular actions were the appropriate action for a situation.

In two other studies (one with adults and one with children) the researchers manipulated people’s explanatory style. For example, in one study with adults, some participants read a series of items that forced them to think about situational explanations for a variety of events (for example, having them think about the types of flowers used for different occasions being a result of marketing efforts by florists). A control group read about these events (giving flowers) without any explanation.

The group that read about situational explanations was less likely to explain other events with the features of objects than the group that read the control items. This group was also less likely to assume that popular actions were the right action. The same result was obtained in the study with kids.

These studies suggest that in situations in which we have not formed explicit values about what to do, we often assume that the typical action people in society take is the right action. In many cases, of course, this assumption is quite reasonable. However, there are some situations in which an action may be popular and still be the wrong thing to do. For example, discrimination against people of particular races or sexual orientations may be widespread in a particular culture, but that does not make it the right thing to do.

Ultimately, you can help to break the assumption that common practices must be as they are by thinking about the situational forces that lead to events. Often, there are many factors that affect cultural norms, and many of them could have come out differently. If they had, the practices we routinely engage in would be quite different.

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