Moral ideals are strongly ingrained within society and individuals alike, but actual moral choices are profoundly influenced by tangible rewards and consequences. Using a paradigm which pits financial self-benefit at the expense of another’s welfare, scientists from the CBSU led by Oriel Feldmanhall (left) show that real moral decisions can dramatically contradict moral choices made in hypothetical scenarios. Subjects were significantly more likely to inflict harm for monetary gain under real conditions than they were under hypothetical conditions. However, by systematically enhancing the contextual information available to subjects when addressing a hypothetical moral problem—thereby reducing the opportunity for mental simulation—we were able to incrementally bring subjects’ responses in line with their moral behaviour in real situations. These results imply that previous work relying mainly on decontextualized hypothetical scenarios may not accurately reflect moral decisions in everyday life. The findings also shed light on contextual factors that can alter how moral decisions are made, such as the salience of a personal gain.
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