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How to change a person's ethical beliefs in five minutes

September 21, 2012|By Jon Bardin | Los Angeles Times
  • Images of the choice procedure during a manipulation exercise.
Images of the choice procedure during a manipulation exercise.

People’s moral and ethical opinions are not as fixed as they might like to believe, according to a new study in which researchers tricked participants into changing their minds on important issues with a simple sleight of hand.

In the study, published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, members of the research team approached 160 people in a park with a two-page questionnaire. The form asked people to state whether or not they agreed with 12 different statements spread over two pages, which were either about general ethical principles or specific moral issues of the day, like whether it is OK to harbor an illegal immigrant in one’s home, whether it is OK to hire a prostitute in places where such acts are legal, or whether Israel is in the right in its conflict with Palestine.

What the subjects didn’t realize was that a part of the first page, when flipped over to the back of the clipboard, became lightly glued to the back of the clipboard, revealing a second set of statements below the first. In this second set, two of the statements had been reversed in meaning from the first set, so that it appeared that someone who initially thought the Israelis were all wrong had now indicated that they were in total agreement with them.

Then came the kicker: The researchers asked the subjects to defend their positions. Amazingly, upwards of 70% of the subjects accepted one of their changed positions, and about half accepted both of them. Even more incredibly, just over half of the subjects were willing to argue forcefully for their newly held belief — even though it clearly was the opposite of what they had claimed to believe just minutes before.

There are several ways to interpret this report. One is that our beliefs are not as fixed as we’d like to believe — that we are malleable, open to just this type of suggestion.

Another more nuanced view is that moral decisions are hard, and we waffle, agreeing with either of the two responses at different times. One might have deep empathy for illegal immigrants but have problems with the idea of violating the rule of law, for example, making it difficult to answer a survey question about the topic by filling in a simple bubble because, in reality, they believe both statements at once.

But one thing’s for sure, if this study’s findings are correct: As the authors put it in their report, “These results suggest a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes.”

You can read the full study here.

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