Kevin Lewis

November 06, 2018

Shaping Responses to Torture: What You Call It Matters
Kimberly Rios & Dominik Mischkowski
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming


Although torture is largely ineffective for gaining information from terrorism suspects, nearly half of Americans support its use. Building upon previous work examining predictors of responses to such tactics and willingness to label them as “torture,” this research tested whether the “torture” label itself can influence attitudes. Across five experiments using two different populations, both politically liberal and conservative participants showed more negative attitudes toward “torture” than “enhanced interrogation,” even given identical descriptions of the tactics. This greater negativity in response to “torture” extended to actual behavior (signing a petition) and was driven by cognitive appraisals of severity as well as feelings of personal distress and other-directed empathic concern. Furthermore, there was a small but significant effect for such effects to be stronger among conservatives than liberals. These findings have implications for the underpinnings of attitudes toward torture, potential ways to shift such attitudes, and the psychological consequences of labels.

It’s Only Wrong If It’s Transactional: Moral Perceptions of Obfuscated Exchange
Oliver Schilke & Gabriel Rossman
American Sociological Review, forthcoming


A wide class of economic exchanges, such as bribery and compensated adoption, are considered morally disreputable precisely because they are seen as economic exchanges. However, parties to these exchanges can structurally obfuscate them by arranging the transfers so as to obscure that a disreputable exchange is occurring at all. In this article, we propose that four obfuscation structures — bundling, brokerage, gift exchange, and pawning — will decrease the moral opprobrium of external audiences by (1) masking intentionality, (2) reducing the explicitness of the reciprocity, and (3) making the exchange appear to be a type of common practice. We report the results from four experiments assessing participants’ moral reactions to scenarios that describe either an appropriate exchange, a quid pro quo disreputable exchange, or various forms of obfuscated exchange. In support of our hypotheses, results show that structural obfuscation effectively mitigates audiences’ moral offense at disreputable exchanges and that the effects are substantially mediated by perceived attributional opacity, transactionalism, and collective validity.

Generosity pays: Selfish people have fewer children and earn less money
Kimmo Eriksson et al.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


Does selfishness pay in the long term? Previous research has indicated that being prosocial (or otherish) rather than selfish has positive consequences for psychological well-being, physical health, and relationships. Here we instead examine the consequences for individuals’ incomes and number of children, as these are the currencies that matter most in theories that emphasize the power of self-interest, namely economics and evolutionary thinking. Drawing on both cross-sectional (Studies 1 and 2) and panel data (Studies 3 and 4), we find that prosocial individuals tend to have more children and higher income than selfish individuals. An additional survey (Study 5) of lay beliefs about how self-interest impacts income and fertility suggests one reason selfish people may persist in their behavior even though it leads to poorer outcomes: people generally expect selfish individuals to have higher incomes. Our findings have implications for lay decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, as well as for economic and evolutionary theories of human behavior.

Ethical Free Riding: When Honest People Find Dishonest Partners
Jörg Gross et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Corruption is often the product of coordinated rule violations. Here, we investigated how such corrupt collaboration emerges and spreads when people can choose their partners versus when they cannot. Participants were assigned a partner and could increase their payoff by coordinated lying. After several interactions, they were either free to choose whether to stay with or switch their partner or forced to stay with or switch their partner. Results reveal that both dishonest and honest people exploit the freedom to choose a partner. Dishonest people seek a partner who will also lie — a “partner in crime.” Honest people, by contrast, engage in ethical free riding: They refrain from lying but also from leaving dishonest partners, taking advantage of their partners’ lies. We conclude that to curb collaborative corruption, relying on people’s honesty is insufficient. Encouraging honest individuals not to engage in ethical free riding is essential.

Heaven, hell, and attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide
Shane Sharp
Journal of Health Psychology, forthcoming


Using data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, I evaluate whether beliefs in heaven and hell are associated with attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide. I find that those who believe in heaven and those who believe in hell tend to have negative attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide, even when controlling for other religiosity and sociodemographic variables. I also find that the belief in hell mediates the effect of the belief in heaven on attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide, suggesting that the fear of hell, more so than the reward of heaven, may lead people to have negative attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide.

The Moral Machine experiment
Edmond Awad et al.
Nature, 1 November 2018, Pages 59–64


With the rapid development of artificial intelligence have come concerns about how machines will make moral decisions, and the major challenge of quantifying societal expectations about the ethical principles that should guide machine behaviour. To address this challenge, we deployed the Moral Machine, an online experimental platform designed to explore the moral dilemmas faced by autonomous vehicles. This platform gathered 40 million decisions in ten languages from millions of people in 233 countries and territories. Here we describe the results of this experiment. First, we summarize global moral preferences. Second, we document individual variations in preferences, based on respondents’ demographics. Third, we report cross-cultural ethical variation, and uncover three major clusters of countries. Fourth, we show that these differences correlate with modern institutions and deep cultural traits. We discuss how these preferences can contribute to developing global, socially acceptable principles for machine ethics. All data used in this article are publicly available.

Beliefs about bad people are volatile
Jenifer Siegel et al.
Nature Human Behaviour, October 2018, Pages 750–756


People form moral impressions rapidly, effortlessly and from a remarkably young age. Putatively ‘bad’ agents command more attention and are identified more quickly and accurately than benign or friendly agents. Such vigilance is adaptive, but can also be costly in environments where people sometimes make mistakes, because incorrectly attributing bad character to good people damages existing relationships and discourages forming new relationships. The ability to accurately infer the moral character of others is critical for healthy social functioning, but the computational processes that support this ability are not well understood. Here, we show that moral inference is explained by an asymmetric Bayesian updating mechanism in which beliefs about the morality of bad agents are more uncertain (and therefore more volatile) than beliefs about the morality of good agents. This asymmetry seems to be a property of learning about immoral agents in general, as we also find greater uncertainty for beliefs about the non-moral traits of bad agents. Our model and data reveal a cognitive mechanism that permits flexible updating of beliefs about potentially threatening others, a mechanism that could facilitate forgiveness when initial bad impressions turn out to be inaccurate. Our findings suggest that negative moral impressions destabilize beliefs about others, promoting cognitive flexibility in the service of cooperative but cautious behaviour.

People systematically update moral judgments of blame
Andrew Monroe & Bertram Malle
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


Six experiments examine people’s updating of blame judgments and test predictions developed from a socially regulated blame perspective. According to this perspective, blame emerged in human history as a socially costly tool for regulating other’s behavior. Because it is costly for both blamers and violators, blame is typically constrained by requirements for “warrant” — evidence that one’s moral judgment is justified. This requirement motivates people to systematically process available causal and mental information surrounding a violation. That is, people are relatively calibrated and evenhanded in utilizing evidence that either amplifies or mitigates blame. Such systematic processing should be particularly visible when people update their moral judgments. Using a novel experimental paradigm, we test 2 sets of predictions derived from the socially regulated blame perspective and compare them with predictions from a motivated-blame perspective. Studies 1–4 demonstrate (across student, Internet, and community samples) that moral perceivers systematically grade updated blame judgments in response to the strength of new causal and mental information, without anchoring on initial evaluations. Further, these studies reveal that perceivers update blame judgments symmetrically in response to exacerbating and mitigating information, inconsistent with motivated-blame predictions. Study 5 shows that graded and symmetric blame updating is robust under cognitive load. Lastly, Study 6 demonstrates that biases can emerge once the social requirement for warrant is relaxed — as in the case of judging outgroup members. We conclude that social constraints on blame judgments render the normal process of blame well calibrated to causal and mental information, and biases may appear when such constraints are absent.

Increased Frontal Lobe Volume as a Neural Correlate of Gray-Collar Offending
Shichun Ling et al.
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, forthcoming

Objectives: A process model of white-collar crime postulates that the etiology of this form of crime is incomplete without consideration of individual differences in neurobiology. Based on prior research, this study tests the primary hypothesis that “gray-collar crime” (GCC; offending on the margin of more serious white-collar crimes) would be associated with increased frontal lobe volume. Secondary analyses explored which frontal subregions, if any, would be associated with gray-collar offending.

Method: Gray-collar offending and blue-collar criminal offending were assessed in 129 community males. Total frontal lobe, anterior cingulate, superior frontal, middle frontal, inferior frontal, and orbitofrontal volumes were assessed using magnetic resonance imaging.

Results: Increased frontal volume was associated with increased gray-collar offending. Frontal volume remained significant after controlling for ethnicity, age, intelligence, whole brain volume, and blue-collar crime covariates, explaining 4.6 percent of the variance in GCC. Within the frontal lobe, findings were localized to superior frontal and anterior cingulate cortex, both before and after controlling for covariates.

Conclusions: Findings provide preliminary evidence of increased frontal volume as a neural correlate of gray-collar offending and support a process model which hypothesizes that frontal lobe volume may provide some individuals with an advantage in perpetrating criminal offenses in occupational and avocational settings.

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