On the right path

Kevin Lewis

March 12, 2019

The malleable morality of conspicuous consumption
Shreyans Goenka & Manoj Thomas
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


Conspicuous consumption has often been decried as immoral by many philosophers and scholars, yet it is ubiquitous and widely embraced. This research sheds light on the apparent paradox by proposing that the perceived morality of conspicuous consumption is malleable, contingent upon how different moral lenses highlight the different characteristics embedded in the behavior. Utilizing the Moral Foundations Theory, we demonstrate that the individualizing values (i.e., equality and welfare) make people focus on the self-enhancing characteristics of conspicuous consumption, making it seem morally objectionable. However, the binding values (i.e., deference to authority, in-group loyalty, and purity) make people focus on the social identity signaling characteristic of conspicuous consumption, making it seem morally permissible. First, an archival dataset shows that the prevalence of the different moral values predicts per-capita spending on luxury goods across different countries. Then, 6 studies (N = 2903) show that the trait endorsement and the momentary salience of the different moral foundations can influence the moral judgment of conspicuous consumption as well as the propensity to engage in conspicuous consumption. Further, analyses show that the effect of the binding values (individualizing values) is mediated by heightened sensitivity to the social identity signaling (self-enhancing) aspects of conspicuous consumption. Finally, the studies demonstrate that the effect is moderated by the extent of social visibility during consumption. Thus, this research suggests that some moral values can, somewhat paradoxically, increase conspicuous consumption.

Twentieth century morality: The rise and fall of moral concepts from 1900 to 2007
Melissa Wheeler, Melanie McGrath & Nick Haslam
PLoS ONE, February 2019


Trends in the cultural salience of morality across the 20th century in the Anglophone world, as reflected in changing use of moral language, were explored using the Google Books (English language) database. Relative frequencies of 304 moral terms, organized into six validated sets corresponding to general morality and the five moral domains proposed by moral foundations theory, were charted for the years 1900 to 2007. Each moral language set displayed unique, often nonlinear historical trajectories. Words conveying general morality (e.g., good, bad, moral, evil), and those representing Purity-based morality, implicating sanctity and contagion, declined steeply in frequency from 1900 to around 1980, when they rebounded sharply. Ingroup-based morality, emphasizing group loyalty, rose steadily over the 20th century. Harm-based morality, focused on suffering and care, rose sharply after 1980. Authority-based morality, which emphasizes respect for hierarchy and tradition, rose to a peak around the social convulsions of the late 1960s. There were no consistent tendencies for moral language to become more individualist or less grounded in concern for social order and cohesion. These differing time series suggest that the changing moral landscape of the 20th century can be divided into five distinct periods and illuminate the re-moralization and moral polarization of the last three decades.

An Experiment on the Vote-Buy Gap with Application to Cage-Free Eggs
Andrew Paul & Jayson Lusk
Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, April 2019, Pages 102-109


Why would people vote to ban a product they regularly consume? This question is at the crux of the controversies over a variety of ballot initiatives restricting certain agricultural production practices. This research moves the question to a controlled laboratory setting with real food and real money to explore the underlying causes of the so-called vote-buy gap. Respondents first made a shopping choice between snack options, some of which included eggs from caged hens as an ingredient. After selecting a snack, participants then voted on a proposition to ban snack options that utilized eggs from caged hens. We show that the vote-buy gap can be replicated in the lab: in the control condition, approximately 80% of the individuals who chose snacks with caged eggs when shopping subsequently voted to ban snacks with caged eggs. The finding rules out the suggestion that the vote-buy gap is an illusion or statistical artifact, as it can be re-created in an experimental lab setting at an individual level. A number of experimental treatments were conducted to test hypotheses related to the underlying causes of the vote-buy gap. We found qualified support for the hypothesis that the vote-buy gap is a result of information asymmetries, but little evidence that it results from public good or expressive voting phenomena.

Using a Psychopharmacogenetic Approach To Identify the Pathways Through Which - and the People for Whom - Testosterone Promotes Aggression
Shawn Geniole et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Little is known about the neurobiological pathways through which testosterone promotes aggression or about the people in whom this effect is observed. Using a psychopharmacogenetic approach, we found that testosterone increases aggression in men (N = 308) with select personality profiles and that these effects are further enhanced among those with fewer cytosine-adenine-guanine (CAG) repeats in exon 1 of the androgen receptor (AR) gene, a polymorphism associated with increased AR efficiency. Testosterone's effects were rapid (~30 min after administration) and mediated, in part, by subjective reward associated with aggression. Testosterone thus appears to promote human aggression through an AR-related mechanism and to have stronger effects in men with the select personality profiles because it more strongly upregulates the subjective pleasure they derive from aggression. Given other evidence that testosterone regulates reward through dopaminergic pathways, and that the sensitivity of such pathways is enhanced among individuals with the personality profiles we identified, our findings may also implicate dopaminergic processes in testosterone's heterogeneous effects on aggression.

Human Cooperation When Acting Through Autonomous Machines
Celso de Melo, Stacy Marsella & Jonathan Gratch
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 26 February 2019, Pages 3482-3487


Recent times have seen an emergence of intelligent machines that act autonomously on our behalf, such as autonomous vehicles. Despite promises of increased efficiency, it is not clear whether this paradigm shift will change how we decide when our self-interest (e.g., comfort) is pitted against the collective interest (e.g., environment). Here we show that acting through machines changes the way people solve these social dilemmas and we present experimental evidence showing that participants program their autonomous vehicles to act more cooperatively than if they were driving themselves. We show that this happens because programming causes selfish short-term rewards to become less salient, leading to considerations of broader societal goals. We also show that the programmed behavior is influenced by past experience. Finally, we report evidence that the effect generalizes beyond the domain of autonomous vehicles. We discuss implications for designing autonomous machines that contribute to a more cooperative society.

Paying for Kidneys? A Randomized Survey and Choice Experiment
Julio Elias, Nicola Lacetera & Mario Macis
NBER Working Paper, February 2019


Legislation and public policies are often the result of competition and compromise between different views and interests. In several cases, strongly held moral beliefs voiced by societal groups lead lawmakers to prohibit certain transactions or to prevent them from occurring through markets. However, there is limited evidence about the specific nature of the general population's opposition to using prices in such contentious transactions. We conducted a randomized survey with 2,666 American residents to study preferences for legalizing payments to kidney donors. We found strong polarization, with many participants supporting or opposing payments regardless of potential transplant gains. However, about 18 percent of respondents would switch to favoring payments for sufficiently large increases in transplants. Preferences for compensation have strong moral foundations; participants especially reject direct payments by patients, which they find would violate principles of fairness. We corroborate the interpretation of our findings with a choice experiment of a costly decision to donate money to a foundation that supports donor compensation.

Understanding public support for eugenic policies: Results from survey data
L.J. Zigerell
Social Science Journal, forthcoming


Little published empirical research has investigated public support for eugenic policies. To add to this literature, a survey on attitudes about eugenic policies was conducted of participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk who indicated residence in the United States (N > 400). Survey items assessed the levels and correlates of support for policies that, among other things, encourage lower levels of reproduction among the poor, the unintelligent, and people who have committed serious crimes and encourage higher levels of reproduction among the wealthy and the intelligent. Analyses of responses indicated nontrivial support for most of the eugenic policies asked about, such as at least 40% support for policies encouraging lower levels of reproduction among poor people, unintelligent people, and people who have committed serious crimes. Support for the eugenic policies often associated with feelings about the target group and with the perceived heritability of the distinguishing trait of the target group. To the extent that this latter association reflects a causal effect of perceived heritability, increased genetic attributions among the public might produce increased public support for eugenic policies and increase the probability that such policies are employed.

Sorry is the Hardest Word to Say: The Role of Self-Control in Apologizing
Joshua Guilfoyle et al.
Basic and Applied Social Psychology, January-February 2019, Pages 72-90


Apologizing is an effective strategy for reconciling relationships after transgressions. However, transgressors often resist or refuse to apologize. The current research investigated the role of self-control in apologizing. In Study 1, self-control was associated with participants' proclivity to apologize and apologetic and nonapologetic behavior. In Studies 2 and 3, self-control was manipulated to test the causal relationship. Both studies found participants with high self-control were more apologetic and less nonapologetic and were more likely to use apologetic statements in e-mails to their victims. Overall, these studies suggest that transgressors with high self-control are more apologetic than those with low self-control.

The effect of admitting fault versus shifting blame on expectations for others to do the same
Elizabeth Lozano & Sean Laurent
PLoS ONE, March 2019


A wealth of research has investigated how and why people cast blame. However, less is known about blame-shifting (i.e., blaming someone else for one's own failures) and how exposure to a blame-shifting agent might lead to expectations that other agents will also shift blame. The present research tested whether exposure to a blame-shifting (versus responsibility-taking) agent would lead perceivers to expect a second, unrelated target to also shift blame. Contrary to our expectations, people expected greater blame-shifting after exposure to a responsible agent, particularly when perceivers were surprised by this reaction to failure. Discussion focuses on how people habitually expect some people to shift blame for their mishaps, and how expectancy violations when people act in unexpected ways predict the extent to which perceivers expect unrelated agents to also shift blame.

Property Damage and Exposure to Other People in Distress Differentially Predict Prosocial Behavior After a Natural Disaster
Tom Vardy & Quentin Atkinson
Psychological Science, forthcoming


The persistent threat of natural disasters and their attendant resource shocks has likely shaped our prosocial drives throughout human evolution. However, it remains unclear how specific experiences during these events might impact cooperative decision making. We conducted two waves of four modified dictator-game experiments with the same individuals in Vanuatu (N = 164), before and after Cyclone Pam in 2015. After the cyclone, participants were generally less likely to show prosocial motives toward both in-group and out-group members and more likely to show parochialism when sharing between groups. Experiencing greater property damage predicted a general decrease in prosocial allocations and preference for participants' in-group. By contrast, exposure to other people in distress predicted increased prosocial allocations to both participants' in-group and out-groups. Our results suggest that people adjust their prosocial behavior in response to natural disasters but that the nature and direction of the effect depend on the type and severity of their experiences.


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