Does science make you moral?

Does science make you moral? September 18, 2013

Over the years there have been quite a number of studies that have looked at the effects of subliminal priming with religious ideas. Often, the results of these studies show that people become more honest (like this one, for example) – and there’s good reason to suppose that this is because religious beliefs really do change people’s behaviour (albeit not always in straightforward ways).

But there’s another interpretation. Perhaps all that’s happening here is that you’re reminding people of social conventions and values. Maybe that is enough to encourage people to be more morally upstanding.

Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich at the University of California Santa Barbara wanted to learn whether the “…notion of science as part of a broader moral vision of society facilitates moral and prosocial judgments and behaviors.”

So, for example, in a simple study of 48 undergraduates they found that those who were science students were more likely than non-scientists to condemn date rape. Belief in science had a similar relationship, although belief in gods did not.

Of course, science students are different from normal people in lots of ways. So then they did some priming studies. These involved giving their subjects a list of words to unscramble into sentences. Half of them got sentences with a science theme (containing the words “logical”, “hypothesis”, “laboratory”, “scientists”, and “theory”).

Priming had an effect . Students primed with science words were more likely to condemn date-rape, and were more likely to say that they were going to do worthy things, like giving blood, donating to charities or volunteering.

They also ran some subjects (not students this time) through the ‘dictator game’. The subjects are given five dollars, and then told they can donate some (or none) to an anonymous other participants.

Those primed with science gave slightly more to the anonymous other. The difference wasn’t big – the average donation was $2.29 in the ‘science primed’ group versus $2.16 the the group primed with neutral words. But the difference was statistically significant.

Compare that to the difference between men and women. Men donated $2.65 on average, whereas women donated only $1.68 – an interesting reflection on gender roles in US society!

What this shows is that generalized notions of science – rather than specific scientific facts – can influence moral attitudes. Which is really though-provoking, when you think about it.

After all, science is supposed to be values neutral. It isn’t supposed to carry with it any moral baggage!

But of course science exists within a social context. And, at least within a university environment, it seems that the social context views science as morally worthy!
Christine Ma-Kellams, & Jim Blascovich (2013). Does ‘‘Science’’ Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior PLoS One, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057989

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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