Moral righteousness in trying times

Difficult times make you cling to moral norms.

Posted Jan 05, 2009

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.

Anything that makes an individual feel unsettled can create this effect. A particularly ingenious version of this effect was obtained by Travis Proulx and Steven Heine in a paper published in the December, 2008 issue of Psychological Science.

They capitalized on an intriguing study done by Dan Simons and Dan Levin in 1998. Simons and Levin had an experimenter approach people on the street with a map and ask for directions. As the person was giving directions, workmen carrying a door cut in between them. The experimenter then switched places with the person holding the rear of the door so that the person on the street was now giving directions to a new person. About 80% of people in this situation never noticed that they were talking to a different person.

Even though people don't notice that people have been switched, there is evidence that they do feel somewhat unsettled by this experience. That is, they have a feeling something is wrong, but they don't consciously recognize the source of the feeling. Proulx and Heine had people come to the lab to participate in a study. They were greeted by an experimenter. After beginning the study, the experimenter went to get more materials for the study and was replaced by another experimenter dressed the same way.

As in the Simons and Levin study, few people consciously recognized the switch. After the switch, people filled out the vignette in which they set bail for a prostitute. The group of people for whom the experimenter switched set bail higher than a control group with no switch. In subsequent studies, the experimenters also did some clever manipulations to demonstrate that this effect really had to do with people feeling unsettled by the switch of experimenter.

So, what does this have to do with the rise of the Nazis in Germany?

In difficult times, people strive for psychological balance. When they cannot control their circumstances, they control their interpretation of the circumstances to help them feel like the world makes sense. Clinging more strongly to social and cultural norms is one way that people try to make sense of their world. This point seems particularly important now as we enter a difficult economic period. People suffering economic hardships are particularly vulnerable to individuals who want to capitalize on people's desire to make their world coherent.