Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Don't stand so close to me: Why morality divides us.

Have you ever discovered that a friend has a dramatically different position than you on a moral matter? Perhaps you found yourself on opposite sides with an old pal in the wake of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq. Maybe, during the Occupy Movement, you discovered that some of your friends had a different take on financial inequality than you did. Or, possibly, last week you found out that a colleague lined up proudly to get a Chik-Fil-A sandwich in order to support "traditional marriage day,” whereas you had a different take on the issue. How would these differences of opinion make you feel? It's likely you might find yourself questioning your opinion of the friend and your relationship with him or her.

Why can’t we accept differences in moral opinion the same way we  readily accept differences in other opinions like music preference? What makes moral attitudes so different and divisive?

Psychologists may have a few answers. In comparison to other attitudes, moral attitudes are:

Seen as universal:

Moral attitudes are different from either personal preferences or social conventions, because we believe that everyone should hold the same ones we do. When it comes to personal preferences, we accept that people have different tastes. Even social conventions, things like tipping waiters or not eating with your hands, are seen as culturally contingent. We are perfectly happy imagining a different country with different social rules in which people eat with their hands and don't leave tips at restaurants.

Young children can spot these differences pretty easily (Turiel, 1998, for a review). When kids as young as four were asked whether it would be okay to make loud noise if there was no rule against it, they typically said that this would be okay. However, when asked whether it would be okay to hit someone else if there was no rule about it, they typically said that hitting would still be wrong.

Associated with unique strong emotions:

There is now a sizeable literature discussing the association between emotions and morality. Overall, psychologists agree that moral attitudes carry with them an emotional component. Your reaction to someone who tortured an animal is very different in both strength and tone from your reaction to someone who doesn’t like your favorite sports team. Moral attitudes are associated with very strong emotions such as disgust, anger, and shame.

As important as attitudes about our material welfare:

Having a moral attitude gives us permission to express opinions that may have nothing to do with our material interests. For example, we can certainly see why low and middle class individuals vote against tax cuts for the rich (when they do), but why would wealthy people vote against a bigger paycheck every month?

In addition to having a personal or material stake in an issue, we can have an equally valid moral stake in it. In other words, standing up for others based on one’s moral values is seen to be as justified as standing up for oneself. This explains phenomena like “straight allies” in the LGBT Rights Movement and white supporters of the Civil Right Movement.

To show the strength of this effect, one study (Efron & Miller, 2012) demonstrated that people who think of the abortion debate as a moral issue weren’t surprised when men had an opinion on the matter. However, those people who did not think of the debate as a moral one were surprised as to why men, who have no personal stake in the matter, would have a strong opinion on abortion. A related study showed that we believe victims of moral crimes (i.e. racist graffiti) are more entitled to retribution than victims of crimes without a moral connotation (i.e. abstract graffiti).

Give us reason to punish and distance:

People who have different opinions from us on a moral issue, in comparison to a non-moral issue, are seen in a fairly bad light. We think of moral transgressions and differences of opinions to be serious breaches of an innate code. Even people who merely have a different opinion than we do are seen as somehow unsavory. In one unique study, researchers showed that we tend to sit further away form people who have different moral attitudes (Skitka, Bauman, & Sargis, 2005).

Overall moral opinions are notably different from other attitudes we have, explaining why we take it so seriously when our friends disagree with us. It is little wonder that the nation is becoming more and more divided as discourse focuses on morality - something that riles up strong emotions in all of us. 

Effron DA, & Miller DT (2012). How the moralization of issues grants social legitimacy to act on one's attitudes. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 38 (5), 690-701 PMID: 22337765

  Skitka LJ, Bauman CW, & Sargis EG (2005). Moral conviction: another contributor to attitude strength or something more? Journal of personality and social psychology, 88 (6), 895-917 PMID: 15982112

1 comment:

  1. This article is interesting, and I agree with it.
    The first answer of the question "Seen as universal" might be approached from cultural persopective because it says young children can spot differences pretty easily.
    Which means their moral attitudes can be based on their growing background.
    I am strongly agree with cross-cultural perspective, because as this article said
    what people see is really important especially young children.
    Most children usually do what their parents do because that's what they have lerned since when they born.
    Also, the background of people will make most of their behavioral habits.
    It also can be explained with Cognitive perspective which is about what people are receiving, and performing.
    People have different thought about the same situation depend on what they have received,
    and how they interpret the situation.
    thanks for this article.:)