People Often Tweak Moral Values in Self Interest

By Traci Pedersen
November 25th, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.
People Often Tweak Moral Values in Self Interest

People are quick to change their moral values based on self interest and how much cash they are likely to receive, according to a new study published in the  Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Previous research emphasizes people’s personalities, genes, and upbringing as the main source of moral values and disagreements about morality,” said Peter DeScioli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University.

“We found that people also adjust their moral values depending on which principle benefits them the most. Our moral principles are more flexible and self-serving than we would like to admit.”

For the study, entitled “Equity or equality? Moral judgments follow the money,” participants worked in pairs to transcribe a paragraph for a cash reward.

One participant was the “typist” who transcribed three paragraphs and the other was the “checker” who transcribed one paragraph, selected randomly from the typist’s paragraphs. If the two partners’ transcriptions matched, then they together earned a cash reward.

It was the typist’s job to decide how to divide the money. He or she could divide the money evenly (50 percent each) or according to the work each person did (75 percent for the typist who transcribed three paragraphs and 25 percent for the checker who transcribed one paragraph).

Most typists took the larger share of the reward, consistent with self-interest.

But it wasn’t only the typists that acted in self interest. Participants also rated the morality and fairness of each division rule: equality (equal payoffs) or equity (payoffs proportional to work).

These moral judgments, too, were based in self interest. For example, participants assigned to be typists reported that they thought equity was more fair and moral, whereas checkers reported that equality was more fair and moral.

Furthermore, when the researchers measured moral values before and after participants were assigned to roles, people were caught in the act: Their moral values changed in a few minutes to favor the rule according to the job they were given.

DeScioli notes that these findings can translate to many situations in which people need to divvy up resources such as family members dividing an estate, business partners dividing profits, citizens deciding how tax dollars will be spent, or nations dividing territory.

“Our selfishness does, however, have some limits,” said DeScioli. In the last experiment, the researchers removed the moral dilemma by asking both partners to transcribe only one paragraph. In this case, 78 percent of the typists shared the reward equally instead of taking the larger share.

The researchers concluded, “Pursuit of self-interest is tempered, however, by the constraints of coordination. People seek not only to benefit themselves but also to persuade other people that they are morally right in doing so.”

Source: Stony Brook University

Money on a hook photo by shutterstock.

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.