Intuition and Moral Judgment

Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward says her latest research tries to ascertain how people arrive at their judgments of situations that seem morally wrong to many people but do not actually involve harm or victims.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Psychological Sciences

People who strongly trust their gut instincts tend to make snap judgments about whether something is morally wrong or not, and they do not change their point of view even after thinking about the issue. That’s the conclusion of a series of studies conducted by Sarah Ward, a doctoral candidate in social/ personality psychology. Ward says psychological research over the last two decades has found that people often quickly and intuitively decide whether they think something is morally wrong or not, rather than rely much on reasoning. In their latest paper, Ward and Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences Laura King looked at how individual differences in intuition might guide moral judgments.  That is, do people who tend to rely on their intuitive instincts and gut feelings condemn actions more strongly than people who do not attend to their intuition? 

Ward says her latest research tries to ascertain how people arrive at their judgments of situations that seem morally wrong to many people but do not actually involve harm or victims. For example,  in earlier research in psychology , when presented with a scenario in which a woman finds an old flag in her apartment and decides to use it to clean, many people judged that action to be morally wrong. When they were given justifications for the woman’s actions, study participants did not change their initial reactions. Ward’s studies build on this earlier research by examining whether there is variability in people’s tendency to rely on their gut instincts when deciding whether actions are immoral. 

“We thought people who were more likely to trust their intuition would be more likely to condemn these things, whereas people who don’t rely on gut feelings would not condemn these same actions as strongly,” Ward says. She had study participants read through a series of scenarios and judge whether or not the action was wrong, such as a man giving a gift to his partner that had previously been purchased for his ex. “We consistently found that people who are more prone to rely on intuition condemned these actions,” she says.

Think About This

The researchers then wanted to determine if getting people to think about these actions—asking them why they thought it was morally wrong or describing their emotional response—would lead to fewer individual differences in how people responded.

“If everybody reasons about these things, then the people who had that initial gut reaction might then decide, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad—it’s not harmful,’ and what we found is that after people deliberated, in general they did condemn these actions less, but people who strongly relied on their intuitive instincts condemned these actions more harshly than others,” Ward says.

Lightning Round

She says the final experiment asked MU students to make rapid, two-second decisions when presented with morally ambiguous scenarios. Ward says the idea was that if everyone’s initial reactions were that these scenarios were wrong, then individual differences would not be a factor in whether someone judged something to be morally wrong or not.

“What we found is they still mattered,” Ward says. “So people who were more intuitive still condemned these morally ambiguous actions even on a two-second snap judgment, which suggests this tendency to rely on intuition relates to all kinds of moral decisions, whether one judges them rapidly or thinks through the implications. This is important because this research has assumed everybody is using intuition to guide these judgments, but what we are finding is there is a lot of individual variability.”

Ward says the bottom line is that people who do not trust their gut instincts are less prone to use their intuition to guide their moral judgments, but people who strongly rely on intuition automatically condemn actions perceived to be morally wrong, even if there is no actual harm.

Ward and King’s paper, “Individual Differences in Reliance on Intuition Predict Harsher Moral Judgments,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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