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Surprising Science

You morally elevate people like yourself, study finds

Think you make moral judgments objectively? Think again.
Would you trust this person if you knew you both liked the same TV show?

Studies show that most people consider their ethical judgments to be objective and impartial. Given how important some of our moral decisions are, like when we serve on a jury or decide who to vote for, this is important. 

Researchers still debate if this is true, however. Some evidence suggests that we act based on arbitrary data, while experience suggests that we think things out or fall back on principals. The arguments are backed by data that supports both sides.

But a new study shows that we aren’t as objective as we thought.

The study, undertaken by Konrad Bocian and Wieslaw Baryla of SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities and several others, asked more than six hundred people their opinions on total strangers based on little more than knowing if that stranger was similar to them or not. Unlike many studies, the test subjects were not all students and represented a broad swath of the Polish population.

The four studies: 

The first part of the study had participants taking a test on major political issues. They were asked their opinions on such hot-button issues as abortion, gay marriage, and a national job program. After filling out the form, they were given another one supposedly filled out by another person. In fact, it was filled out by a computer to either match or oppose their answers to varying degrees.

They were then asked to give their impression of the “person” whose answers they were reading. They were also asked to answer questions about the person designed to see if they found them to be moral, competent, or trustworthy.

These questions were largely based around giving a likeliness score to hypotheticals such as, “When finding a wallet with documents and money, (they) bring it back to the owner.”

The results were clear – the test subjects supposed that the “people” who were the most similar to them were more moral and trustworthy in every case. They were also seen as more competent but to a lesser extent. People also said they liked the “persons” who were similar to them more than the ones who were not, even though all they had to go on were fake answers to a political issues quiz. 

This liking was the key effect. We like those who are similar to us, and as a result, we find them more trustworthy.

Three more tests were carried out. The second introduced a control group which only had a picture to go on. The control group’s answers were compared to the responses of people that took a test similar to the previous one, showing that the results from the first test held up.

The third test connected the results of the previous tests to a well-known effect called “mere-exposure.” While it is known that continued exposure to something causes people to view it more favorably, the test showed that people’s opinion of how moral, trustworthy, and competent somebody that we see frequently is improves as well. 

The last test introduced an actor. In that test, a computer image of the actor could be set to mimic the facial expressions of the test subject while they took a quiz about emotions which called for them to make faces. This test showed that the subjects ranked the actor as more trustworthy and moral when they had mimicked them than when they had not, though the mimicry did not affect their perceived competence.

What does this all mean?

Put together; the four tests suggest that how much we like somebody, as determined by either their similarities to us or even just how frequently we see them, influences how we judge them morally. The effect also exists for how competent we think they are. This “mere-liking” effect suggests that our moral judgments aren’t quite as objective as we’d suppose. 

So, we like people who are like us; what’s the big deal?

While it seems noncontroversial to say that we trust people that we like, there is more to it. It isn’t just that we trust them more, the test subjects were inclined to say they were competent, moral, and trustworthy just because they agreed on a few issues, were seen a few times, or mirrored our actions.

The researchers suggest their findings show “purportedly objective judgments of morality (as people typically believe) appear to be heavily influenced by liking-disliking, a paragon of subjective preferences.” They also suggest that this means our conception of how we view our own decision-making might be an illusion, positing that our judgmentsmay be frequently driven by attitudes, though rationalized by other considerations that are seemingly more rational and socially shared.”

This, alongside various other studies, suggests that our moral judgments are not fully objective but have large amounts of subjectivity thrown in. Given the seriousness of certain moral decisions we are asked to make, and known biases such as how people who look trustworthy avoid the death penalty in capital cases this study suggests that we are more affected by irrelevant data than is comfortable.

The data will join a huge amount of information going into the debate over how we reach moral judgments. While this study will be on the side that argues we are more subjective, it will not be enough to tip the scale decisively. 

How can I use this?

It depends on how scrupulous you are.

If you want to be a better judge of character, know that people you like, see often, or are similar to are going to seem more moral to you – even if they don’t deserve it.

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You can also use this to your advantage. Since people like people they are similar to and trust them more than they otherwise would, you can gain people’s trust and confidence just by playing up your similarities with other people, mimicking their facial expressions, or just being seen more frequently. Please do so responsibly.

The research also explains why we occasionally have moral blind spots that seem glaring in hindsight. Given that the study suggests that we’ll find a person more trustworthy for rather arbitrary reasons, the fact that people get pulled in by obvious cons is a little more understandable. If somebody is working too hard to play up their similarities to you, watch out. 

While we tend to think that we make our moral judgments objectively and consider other people without regard to if we happen to like them, it seems that we subconsciously tend to like those similar to us and that this leads us to trust them. This raises questions about how objective we can be when making moral decisions.

While the final answer on the subject is a ways away, it might not hurt to start playing up the similarities you share with other people.


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