Flip-Flop? People Can Change Moral Positions and Not Know It

WEDNESDAY Sept. 19, 2012 -- People can easily change a moral view about a difficult topic without even realizing it, a new study finds.

Swedish researchers asked participants to complete a survey about moral issues. To do so, the participants had to flip over the first page of questions, which was displayed on a clipboard.

But the back of the clipboard had a patch of glue that caught the top layer of the questions. So when the page was flipped back over, an opposite version of the original questions was revealed but the participant's answers remained unchanged.

This meant that the participants' responses were opposite to their originally declared moral positions, the study authors said.

When the researchers discussed the participants' answers with them, they found that many people supported their answers, even though their responses were actually opposite to their original views.

The "participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position," suggesting "a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes," wrote study leader Lars Hall, of Lund University, and colleagues.

The study was published Sept. 19 in the online journal PLoS One.

The findings "could have significant impact on research that uses self-reported questionnaires. Either we would have to conclude that many participants hold no real attitudes about the topics we investigate, or that standard survey scales fail to capture the complexity of the attitudes people actually hold," Hall commented in a journal news release.

More information

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a definition of morality.

Posted: September 2012


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