Good Thoughts

Kevin Lewis

February 22, 2024

Ends versus Means: Kantians, Utilitarians, and Moral Decisions
Roland Bénabou, Armin Falk & Luca Henkel
NBER Working Paper, January 2024 


Choosing what is morally right can be based on the consequences (ends) resulting from the decision -- the consequentialist view -- or on the conformity of the means involved with some overarching notion of duty -- the deontological view. Using a series of experiments, we investigate the overall prevalence and the consistency of consequentialist and deontological decision-making, when these two moral principles come into conflict. Our design includes a real-stakes version of the classical trolley dilemma, four novel games that induce ends-versus-means tradeoffs, and a rule-following task. These six main games are supplemented with six classical self-versus-other choice tasks, allowing us to relate consequential/deontological behavior to standard measures of prosociality. Across the six main games, we find a sizeable prevalence (20 to 44%) of nonconsequentialist choices by subjects, but no evidence of stable individual preference types across situations. In particular, trolley behavior predicts no other ends-versus-means choices. Instead, which moral principle prevails appears to be context-dependent. In contrast, we find a substantial level of consistency across self-versus-other decisions, but individuals’ degree of prosociality is unrelated to how they choose in ends-versus-means tradeoffs.

Order Matters When Using Two-Sided Messages to Influence Morally Based Attitudes
Mengran Xu & Richard Petty
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming 


Contrary to common beliefs, sometimes downplaying or even undermining one’s case can enhance impact, especially for people with strong attitudes. Across four studies (N = 1,548), we demonstrate that the placement of the undermining information within a two-sided message matters. By manipulating message order within a two-sided message, Study 1 showed that the relative effectiveness of two- over one-sided messages for people with a moral attitude primarily occurred when the two-sided message acknowledged the recipient’s side at the end rather than at the beginning of the message. Studies 2A/B showed that this effect was associated with positive source perceptions, such that placing the acknowledgment at the end results in people with a higher moral basis perceiving the source as more thoughtful and sincere. Furthermore, this inference process was more likely to occur when motivation to think was relatively high. Study 3, a preregistered experiment, replicated these findings using a different topic.

Bleeding-heart horror fans: Enjoyment of horror media is not related to lower empathy or compassion
Coltan Scrivner
Journal of Media Psychology, forthcoming 


The horror genre portrays some of the most graphic and violent scenes in media. How and why some people find enjoyment in such a graphic genre is an age-old question. One hypothesis is that people lower in prosocial traits such as empathy and compassion are more likely to enjoy horror. We found evidence against this hypothesis across three studies. Study 1 demonstrated that enjoyment of horror movies was unrelated to affective empathy, negatively associated with coldheartedness, and positively associated with cognitive empathy. A preregistered follow-up study found that measures of empathy and coldheartedness were unrelated to how many horror movies a participant had seen. In Study 3, enjoyment of horror movies was unrelated to the amount of money a participant decided to donate to a less fortunate participant. These findings contradict beliefs from the public about horror fans possessing lower levels of prosocial traits such as empathy and compassion. They also put into question findings from older studies about the relationship between empathy and enjoyment of horror media.

Sleep, media use, and sociopolitical attitudes
Matea Mustafaj, Stuart Soroka & Jan Van den Bulck
Journal of Media Psychology, forthcoming 


The relationship between sleep and media use is well established, as is the effect of sleep deprivation and fatigue on decision-making. Our paper connects these disparate literatures to consider the ways in which a combination of sleep and media use affect sociopolitical attitudes related to risk and/or threat perception. Using novel data from a large US survey, we found that participants who consume high levels of media coverage in a more fatigued state tend to be most supportive of a US border wall and of increased spending on defense and police. Analyses further suggest an association between sleep, media use, and risk preferences. These results offer preliminary evidence for an as-yet wholly under-explored and likely increasingly important moderator for those interested in the effects of media use: sleep.

Easy to Be Selfish: When and Why is One Individual as Influential as Multiple Individuals
Zheshuai Yang & Yan Zhang
Journal of Consumer Research, forthcoming 


Past research on social influence finds that, all else being equal, a group of people engaged in a particular behavior is generally more influential than a single individual in inspiring others to adopt that behavior. The current research challenges this seemingly intuitive idea by showing that its validity depends on whether the focal behavior is selfish. Seven experiments show that while multiple people are indeed more influential than a single individual in encouraging unselfish behavior, a single individual can be just as influential as multiple people in encouraging selfish behavior. We present evidence that this phenomenon occurs because people generally have a preference for the selfish option and seek justification for their actions. Selfish behavior, whether exhibited by a single individual or a group of people, provides a convenient justification consistent with their preference for selfish behavior. When it comes to unselfish behavior, however, a larger group of influencers is required to counteract their self-benefiting tendencies. Supporting this mechanism, the effect is reversed when people have a pre-existing preference for unselfishness or when selfish behavior is difficult to justify.

Self-serving bias in moral character evaluations
Andrew Vonasch & Bradley Tookey
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2024 


Are people self-serving when moralizing personality traits? Past research has used cross sectional methods incapable of establishing causality, but the present research used experimental methods to test this. Indeed, two experiments (N = 669) show that people self-servingly inflate the moral value of randomly assigned personality traits they believe they possess, and even judge other people who share those same traits as more moral, warm, and competent than those who do not. We explain various methodological challenges overcome in conducting this research, and discuss implications for both psychology and philosophy.

Relational attributions for one’s own resilience predict compassion for others
Rachel Ruttan et al.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming 


Existing work on attribution theory distinguishes between external and internal attributions (i.e., “I overcame adversity due to luck” vs. “my own effort”). We introduce the construct of relational resilience attributions (i.e., “due to help from other people”) as a critical, but overlooked form of external attribution that predicts compassion toward others. We first document the presence of internal, relational (social external), and situational (nonsocial external) resilience attributions among people who have overcome unemployment, showing the predominance of internal attributions (Study 1). Next, we show that relational attributions uniquely predict compassion toward people struggling to overcome a range of challenges, including losing a loved one (Study 2), quitting smoking (Study 3a), workplace bullying (Study 3b), divorce (Study 4a), and pandemic survival (Study 4b). To examine causality and the malleability of relational attributions, we experimentally induce relational attributions among ex-smokers (Study 5), advanced degree holders (Study 6), and those who completed a fatiguing task (Study 7). We further find that gratitude is one critical link between one’s own relational attributions and compassion toward others. Despite the prevailing tendency for people to make internal attributions for their resilience, forming relational attributions is positively associated with greater compassion for others struggling to endure adversity.

How Do Surrogates Make Treatment Decisions for Patients with Dementia? An Experimental Survey Study
Lauren Hersch Nicholas et al.
NBER Working Paper, February 2024 


Despite the growing need for surrogate decision-making for older adults, little is known about how surrogates make decisions and whether advance directives would change decision-making. We conducted a nationally representative experimental survey that cross-randomized cognitive impairment, gender, and characteristics of advance care planning among hospitalized older adults through a series of vignettes. Our study yielded three main findings: first, respondents were much less likely to recommend life-sustaining treatments for patients with dementia, especially after personal exposure. Second, respondents were more likely to ignore patient preferences for life-extending treatment when the patient had dementia, and choose unwanted life-extending treatments for patients without dementia. Third, in scenarios where the patient's wishes were unclear, respondents were more likely to choose treatments that matched their own preferences. These findings underscore the need for improved communication and decision-making processes for patients with cognitive impairment and highlight the importance of choosing a surrogate decision-maker with similar treatment preferences.


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