How Does Being Observed Influence Moral Judgment?

Just a quick note on some interesting new work coming out in Evolution and Human Behavior. A paper in press by Lee et al. asks if people’s moral judgments differ depending on whether they are being observed. To do this, subjects were assigned to two different conditions. In one, subjects were told that their responses to the questions they saw were been “monitored and manually recorded by two experimenters due to some technical glitch,” while subjects in the control group received no such instructions.

Their primary interest was in whether observation would change judgments in moral dilemmas. They used fifty questions in all. Dilemmas were of various types, but a key comparison relates to dilemmas such as the Trolley Problem. As most readers at this point know, in the Trolley Problem, in the classic version, the subject must decide whether it is permissible to push one person off a footbridge in order to save five people on the trolley tracks. Pushing the person is the utilitarian answer: it’s the one that leads to the greatest good (one dead versus five). Not pushing is the deontological answer: it’s the one that corresponds to a moral imperative (in this case, one about killing a person, even to save many).

The authors find that “social observation increased the proportion of deontological judgments in moral dilemmas.” That is, if you were the person on the footbridge, you would want others to be around so that the subject didn’t push you, but if you were on the trolley tracks, you would want the subject to be unobserved, in which case they would be more likely to push the one to save you and your four friends.

Why? Why should being observed cause someone to choose the option that leads to a worse outcome? You might think that being observed would cause people to be more likely to make the choice that was most beneficial to others. The authors speculate that the reason is that “deontological decisions in moral dilemmas evoke the perception of warmth-related positive traits such as trustworthiness and sociability,” or, related, not pushing signals “their propensities to avoid harming innocent others.”

These possibilities raise the question of why choosing the more overall harmful option signals these positive attributes. Is it really “sociable” to choose the option that leads to worse outcomes? Perhaps. Another possibility seems to be that people know that pushing the person off of the footbridge will be seen by observers as immoral and the sort of thing for which one could be punished. In most legal systems, after all, not pushing, even if it leads to harm, is not punishable, but pushing the person, even to save others, is. (I don’t know if “duty to help” laws require pushing. Anyone?) This fact, that pushing might lead to punishment, might tilt psychological judgments under observation in the direction of the option that avoids punishment. This would be consistent with some of my earlier work, which shows that punishment increases under conditions of observation.

As the authors indicate, these lab results could have real world implications. As they say, “many ethical conundrums in the real world are essentially social in that they require public disclosure of one’s moral stance.” If these results do hold in the real world, then being observed could make people more likely to make moral judgments that lead to worse overall outcomes. Given that so many moral judgments are observed, this fact might have widespread implications.


Moral Panic Part II – A Sense of Proportion

In my last post, I discussed one of two interesting features of moral panics, the tendency for people to pile on the alleged perpetrator instead of standing up for them even when, in retrospect, at least, they did little, or nothing wrong.

In this post, I discuss a second feature of moral panics, that people frequently favor draconian punishments for even mild offenses. Modern Americans recoil when they hear of hands cut off to punish theft. We similarly shake our heads about Singapore, where the death sentence is mandatory for, among other things, possession of 15 grams of heroin.

But the American penal system is also panicked about drugs. Three strikes laws have been used to condemn prior offenders to life sentences for absurdly tiny offenses, like stealing a pair of socks. (The court also imposed a fine of $2,500; the issue of working wages in prisons is a topic for another time.) A high school student who sends an explicit picture of themselves to someone who has asked for just such an explicit picture – consensual sexting – often faces felony charges as well as being required to register as a sex offender.

I like this rendering (Critcher, 2017) who, talking about disproportion in the context of moral panic, puts it this way:

Fundamentally, “the concept of moral panic rests on disproportion” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009, p. 41, emphasis in original). It is evident where “public concern is in excess of what is appropriate if concern were directly proportional to objective harm” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009, p. 40). Statistics are exaggerated or fabricated. The existence of other equally or more harmful activities is denied.

In short, disproportion is a key, repeating element in moral panics.

In my last post, I referred to the case of Aziz Ansari, and quoted Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic, writing about the case, which I render again here:

… what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.

The key point from the perspective of moral panics is the latter end of the scale, “the disappointing.” Suppose we understand Ansari’s behavior – not, to be clear, that I am saying that this is how I take it – to be within the boundaries of the law but perhaps outside the boundaries of gentlemanly conduct. Is the punishment merited? Should years of work put into a profession be erased because of one “disappointing” episode?

Maybe. After all, if we agree Ansari’s is free to be ungentlemanly, we must also agree that people are free to tweet whatever they want.

Still, Flanagan’s remark about the “clinical detail” strikes me as insightful. The moralization of scenarios such as one played out in Ansari’s apartment opens up a space for venom, a space the mob can inhabit, throwing shade with near impunity. The victims of the moral mobs are dehumanized, and – as befits animals – no treatment is too severe, as indicated by the stolen socks case, above.

It’s important to note that the mob mentality can penetrate organizational structures. Worries about harassment in and around the workplace were an important part of the #metoo movement. Should Justine Sacco, whose story I discussed last time, have been fired from her job? Suppose that the employees of her firm were screaming for her firing, but cooler heads deemed the tweet an obvious (if ill-considered and offensive) joke? The urge that people have to jump on the bandwagon and join the moral mob shapes decisions made by those who determine the fate of people such as Sacco. What ought they to have done? How should they think about the “right” punishment?

One might be tempted to reply that of course they should still have fired her. The firm is a private concern, and should protect itself. If the mob is coming, throw them their victim.

This is a tempting line to take, especially since nearly everyone, statistically, will be part of the mob, rather than its victim.

But to return to Flanagan’s quote, above, again, should the punishment for a disappointing date be the end of a career and the destruction of a life? Should the punishment for one vile public statement set against countless other countless benign private acts be global humiliation? Given that moral norms change rapidly, how does anyone know that their particular shortcomings – and we all have them – won’t be moralized and – here’s the key – weaponized?

Moral Panic & The Joy of Piling On

In the face of a panic it is the job of those who know better to stand and say… wait… this is misplaced anxiety. — Malcolm Gladwell.

The quotation above is from Gladwell’s recent podcast entitled, “The Imaginary Crimes of Margit Hamosh.” It reminds me of the famous poem by Martin Niemöller, the one that begins, “First they came for the Socialists…” and ends with “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Why, indeed, do people not speak up? The podcast recounts the story of Dr. Hamosh, a scientist at Georgetown accused of scientific misconduct, at a time—the early nineties—when such accusations were sprouting like weeds. Put through untold hours of scrutiny and reputation-destroying questioning by the NIH’s Office of Research Integrity (ORI), her offense seems to have turned on using the word “presently” – as the English do – to mean “soon,” rather than how (most but not all) Americans do, to mean “now.” (She was ultimately exonerated; Gladwell wrote about the story in the Washington Post, for those interested.) Gladwell’s point is that the diligent ORI was, in the hunt for the supposed epidemic of scientific misconduct, destroying careers and reputations – and no one stood to say, “wait, this is misplaced anxiety.”

So the panic that Gladwell has in mind is not that of patrons at a movie theater on fire, but rather a moral panic, the worry that some moral transgression is happening everywhere with dire consequences, and must be stopped, damn the cost.

Moral panics come about with some regularity whenever a sufficiently large number of humans get together, which is to say pretty much all the time. Americans are probably most familiar with the moral panic surrounding witchcraft and the subsequent Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. Twenty people (and even two dogs) were executed when all was said and done, illustrating the awesome power of moral panics to destroy. The twenty people killed by the moral mob were, of course, innocent of witchcraft, to say nothing of the poor dogs.

The worry – really, the panic – that witches and witchcraft were everywhere were, in Gladwell’s phrase, “misplaced anxiety.” Why did no one stand and say this?

That is an interesting psychological question, and one that remains timely. For instance, Gladwell links the investigations of scientific fraud to the scare in Belgium in the late nineties that led to the recall of 2.5 million bottles of Coke… which turned out to be just fine. Moral panics can seemingly break out any time anywhere about anything.

On the psychology front, moral panics have a number of shared features, but I’ll focus  on just two, one in the remainder of this post, and one in the next.

Taking the first of these two features, as Gladwell’s quote points out, in the face of these massive miscarriages of justice and lives ruined, there is often a distinct lack of individuals who know better to stand up. In fact, modern experiences with moral transgressions seem to paint a different, even, the opposite picture: an eagerness to pile on. The headline the Times ran on the story about the woman who, granted, had a moment of stupidity, captures it precisely: “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” The Twitter mob – the current incarnation of the normal, everyday mob with their torches and pitchforks – knows no mercy.

To drift into academic matters for a moment, this seems to fit uneasily with many theories of morality. Many modern theories of morality – though by no means all – focus on notions of harm and deterrence. Why do we morally condemn and punish? To prevent future harm. But that seems hard to square with Twitter mobbing. Surely after the first critical replies Justine would never, ever so tweet again. (And this holds aside the question of whether the “harm” here is covered by theories of morality.) Why do third parties delight in jumping on the moralistic bandwagon, expressing their disapproval, heaping punishment after punishment on the perpetrator?

I don’t propose to answer this vexing question here – though I’ve worked with my former student Peter DeScioli for the reader interested in the sort of answer I favor. As a very informal matter, one sort of (proximate, unsatisfying) answer is simply that people enjoy piling on. Having seen a moral mob or two, I can say that my sense is that people take great joy in expressing the moral failing of the victim of the day. The word that always occurs to me is gleeful. The carrion feeding on Aziz Ansari’s corpse – see below — seemed to me to do so with glee. This, of course, pushes the question back: why is piling on so enjoyable?

A second sort of answer is, perhaps obviously, the cost of speaking up. In research with Alex Shaw and Peter DeScioli, we have found that in certain contexts even simply remaining neutral, let alone coming in on the “wrong” side, can be costly to one’s social relationships. Others make inferences about you based on the moral judgments you make. “Can you believe that scientist had an error in her 50,000 word grant proposal?! She’s a horrible person, right?” The correct answer – as long as one isn’t, the sort that “knows better” and is willing to “stand up” – is always an emphatic “right!” We burnish our moral credentials by condemning the person everyone else is standing in line to condemn. That is, piling on confers a reputational benefit: one is signaling one’s moral virtue and, so, how good a group member and individual one is.

The full answer is no doubt more complex. But whatever the reasons, the larger point here is that piling on is a key feature of moral panics, and, really, the one that Gladwell is pointing to in the quotation. We should strive to understand why it happens, and, of course, as people, we should strive to be the ones standing up instead of the ones piling on.

Do we?

When I think of modern moral panics, the case of Aziz Ansari I mentioned above comes to mind. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I absolutely believe that sexual assault, harassment, and indeed any coercion should be punished. Now, regarding the now-famous account of a woman’s date with Aziz Ansari, opinions seem to vary regarding his behavior. Was it harassment or coercion? Or was it something less than that? Whatever it was, Caitlin Flanagan at the Atlantic characterizes the result this way:

… what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.

The “clinical detail” is interesting in its own right, and I’ll return to that next week. But the other part of the hurting and humiliating of Ansari isn’t the detail per se, but it’s the decision to write about the evening publically. Ansari’s career could probably have withstood the clinical details if they were rendered only to the woman’s circle of friends. The details help, but the real attack is in the decision to go public. Given the human love of piling on, making the incident public was the key piece in cementing viral disparagement of Ansari.

Gladwell is right that those who know better ought to stand up. The psychology that underlies human morality – especially the peculiar tendency for people to enjoy joining the moral mob – explains, however, why they generally do not. I’ll return to some of the consequences of this in my next post.

World Cup Soccer, Social Adjustment, and the Origins of Hooliganism. And Nelson from the Simpsons.

How many times have you heard someone explain that a child – or an adult – acted out in anger or violence because they were insecure, had low self-esteem, or were poorly adjusted? This sort of connection, from low self-esteem to aggression – and the reverse, a link between high self-esteem and achievement – is and has been a popular one, reflected in – and maybe propagated by – portrayals in popular media. To take but one example, the authoritative Simpson’s Wiki confidently asserts regarding the school bully, Nelson Muntz, that “the most likely cause of Nelson’s poor behaviour is his low self-esteem…” A key problem with this view – that low self-esteem plays a causal role in violence and aggression – is that, as Boden (2017) recently put it in the similarly authoritative Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression, “there is no evidence to suggest that low self‐esteem plays a causal role in violence and aggression.”

So, with the World Cup in full swing, and Brazil still in the running, this seems like a good moment to discuss a forthcoming paper in my old journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, which reports some work that looks at this connection in the context of soccer (hereafter, football, in deference to the Cup) fans. A new paper by Martha Newson and colleagues investigates if hooliganism in football is, as has been suggested, due to “social maladjustment” or, instead, to something more “positive,” the degree to which people feel part of their particular group, or what they call “identity fusion.”

So, Newson et. al surveyed 439 (male) football fans, asking them questions about their fandom, whether they had been in football-related fights, willingness to fight and die for one’s team (!), identity, fusion, social adjustment, and a number of other items. In terms of their Social Adjustment Scale (SAS), they find that “none of the SAS sub-scales correlated with our main variables of interest… Nor was there evidence for social maladjustment contributing to violence [or] a willingness to fight/die” for their team. In contrast, they find that “hooligan acts (both past violence reports and endorsements of future fighting/dying for one’s club) are most likely to occur among strongly fused fans.”

In short, it doesn’t look like, in this context at least, being socially maladjusted makes one prone to violence. Instead, it’s being a super big fan of your team. Now, the usual caveats must be kept in mind. The sample here isn’t completely random. The data are self-reported. And add in there the usual concern about correlation and causation. (Having said that, if it were true that social maladjustment caused violence, then the correlation should have been there. Correlation does not logically entail causation, but usually if there is causation, you should be able to detect a correlation.)

Are there broader lessons from this work? As indicated above, my view is that this work plugs into a larger debate about where antisocial behavior comes from. In contrast to the whimsical example of Nelson from the Simpsons, recent work undermines the view that bullying is driven by having low self-esteem. Reciprocally, the putative benefits of high self-esteem continue to be suspect.

Note that while discussions of self-esteem have often focused on educational settings, the recent work by Baumeister and Vohs (linked above) should be taken seriously by people in the real world in terms of the workplace. As they put it, referring to work by Orth et al,: “Self-esteem mainly affected subjective outcomes, such as relationship satisfaction and depression. The more objective the measure was (e.g., salary, occupational attainment), the less effect self-esteem had…. Despite their large sample, there was no effect whatsoever on occupational status. Thus, high self-esteem leads to being more satisfied with your job but not with getting a better job.”

Finally, results such as these have potentially important implications for anyone trying to improve one’s own – or others’ – behavior. While the idea that increasing self-esteem will produce improved outcomes – better educational attainment, a better job, less aggression – has historically been a popular one, the present state of knowledge should make one cautious, even skeptical of this idea.

Stepping back even further, as some have been suggesting for quite some time, it might be better to stop thinking of self-esteem as a cause but rather an effect. Self-esteem might be the feeling that one gets when one is doing well – professionally, socially, etc. – rather than the feeling that gets one to do the things that will help one do well. If that’s true, then interventions in the classroom and in the workplace shouldn’t focus on making people feel better about themselves, but – and this really shouldn’t be a surprise – to helping people accomplish the sorts of things that will lead to success and, as a consequence, feeling good.

(Note: This entry has been cross-posted on Psychology Today)