Are “immoral” acts really just “impossible?”

Posted on under Today's research

The science of ethics is something that I have long been fascinated in. That we have an innate drive to establish an ethical code is pretty well accepted—all human societies have one so it must be part of our basic DNA.  But we are finding out new things about how the human system interacts with morality on an almost weekly basis. For example, it would now seem that our brain often views immoral acts as if they are impossible. Not wrong, just impossible.

Imagine you’re getting hungry at work and you see a candy bar on a co-worker’s desk. Why not just eat it while she’s out of the room?

Some people might not do it because they know it’s wrong. Other people might not do it because it’s risky. But a new study suggests that—for most people—their immediate response might actually be to think that it isn’t even possible.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What the researchers say: “When people do something immoral, people tend to say things like, ‘No, that can’t be right,’ or ‘I can’t believe it,’” the lead author said. “There’s a sense that the brain treats these kind of things similarly to how it would react if someone told you it is possible to turn your hat into a candy bar, or something equally impossible.”

There may be good reason for the brain to react that way he said. “We think this might actually help people act morally in the real world,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to do the right thing if your brain is designed to treat the wrong thing as if it were impossible. Because if you admitted something was possible, it might start to feel pretty tempting.”

In some sense, he said, it’s as though every person has two voices in their heads that propose possibilities—a more intuitive one that respects the laws of morality, and a more deliberative one that sticks to the laws of physics (even if it doesn’t interpret the current situation correctly).

“Part of what we’re learning is why people call things possible or impossible,” the researchers said. “It turns out we don’t do this like a scientist or philosopher, with the goal of being perfectly accurate about the world. Ordinary people want to be practical about the world, and practically speaking, you shouldn’t be doing immoral or irrational things. So a practical approach to decision-making is to simply call immoral things impossible, and only focus on the set of things that are worth investing your time in.”

They discovered something really interesting when surveying the results of a series of large-scale experiments designed to test the difference between “immoral” and “impossible” in people’s minds.

When participants were given more time for reflection, the researchers said, they called one-quarter of immoral actions impossible. When participants were given less time, however, as many as half were called impossible.

“If people have time to reflect, they’re going to use their well-formed, reasoned understanding of which things are possible and impossible,” the lead researcher said. “But when they have to act quickly, they don’t have time to do that, so they have to rely on this default idea of which things could even happen in the first place.”

The study raises a host of additional questions—and could open the door to a new understanding of why some people repeatedly commit immoral actions.

The study also suggests one possible reason why turning to religion is often a successful strategy for those hoping to stop using alcohol or drugs.

“Maybe by making those things ‘immoral,’ the priests are saying: we know you want it, but in future you’re going to treat it as if it’s something you can’t do,” the lead author said.

By Dr Bob Murray