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So much for morality...
11 May 2009
When it comes to the crunch, we are not as moral as we like to think. The closer in time an event gets, the more our moral judgment falters. This is shown by Jens Agerström in a dissertation in psychology at Lund University in Sweden.
Jens Agerström arranged to have nearly 1,000 individuals confront various scenarios where they were to make moral judgments. The scenarios were about everything from separating trash and donating blood to helping a good friend move on the sunniest day of summer. For half of the people in the experiment the scenario was to take place in the near future, while the other half were told to imagine that the event was between 10 and 30 years in the future.
“It turned out that the thought that we might act selfishly in the distant future prompted more feelings of guilt than if we were to act selfishly next week,” says Jens Agerström.
The dissertation also showed that we are quicker to condemn the immoral acts of others if they are remote in time. For instance, it is regarded as more immoral to commit an environmental crime in ten years than next week. Since the temporal distance is assumed to have a similar effect backward in time, this can entail several consequences in practice, according to Jens Agerström, who mentions the system of justice as an example:
“Considering that crimes that are remote in time risk being judged more severely, it should be in the best interest of a criminal to be convicted as soon as possible.”
Aid organizations should also be able to benefit from his findings, since people are more likely to donate money if they do not have to do it right now:
“People soliciting contributions should ask donors if they can deduct money from their accounts automatically, starting in six months,” says Jens Agerström.
The fact that we give greater weight to moral values further away in time has to do with how abstract we are in our thinking. When we think of temporally distant events, we think more abstractly, which makes us focus on superordinate aspects and the main purport of the event. But if we think of events that are close to us in time, we think more concretely, which means that subordinate, peripheral aspects take on more importance. For example, if we imagine that we will be asked to donate blood in the future, what dominates is the superordinate moral value of helping other people, but if the time perspective is telescoped, concrete subordinate selfish motives take over, such as the fact that it will be unpleasant to be stuck by a needle.