Almost a year ago today, I wrote my first post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!. The post, titled ‘The Data on Science and Religion‘, discussed a article in Science that investigated whether analytical thinking promoted religious disbelief. I thought it fitting that my post today would tackle a new article, just published in PLoS One that asks whether analytical thinking also makes you more moral.
The authors of the article, Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich, used a series of four experiments to ask whether there was a link between exposure to science and moral behavior. In the first experiment, the authors examined how previous exposure to scientific thinking influenced perceptions of moral behavior. Participants were asked to read a short story describing a date rape situation and rate how wrong the behavior was on a scale of 1-100, where 100 is considered completely wrong. They were then asked, on a scale of 1-7, how much they ‘believe’ in science.
To avoid confounding past experiences, the following three experiments manipulated the participants recent exposure to scientific thinking by asking them to play a word game that either contained scientific vocabulary (i.e. hypothesis, scientists, etc.) or control vocabulary (i.e. shoes, paper, etc.) and then complete one of three alternative tasks aimed to measure morality. The second study repeated the same moral judgement scenario as their first experiment. The third study asked participants to report the likelihood that they would engage in certain activities in the following month. Those activities fell into two categories: (1) prosocial behaviors that benefit others, such as giving blood and (2) control activities with no benefit to others, such as going to the movies. Finally, the forth study measured actual moral behavior by giving the participants $5 and asking them to split it (in any manner they desired) between themselves and another anonymous participant.
In all four experiments, the authors found exposure to scientific thinking led to more moral behaviors. Study participants that were exposed to the scientific priming (or in the first experiment, that had greater previous exposure to science) reported date rape as being more wrong, were more likely to report that they would participate in prosocial behaviors and divided the $5 more evenly between themselves and the anonymous participant. So, should we (the scientific community) all give ourselves a giant pat on the back and marvel at the fact that analytical thinking appears to simultaneously promote religious disbelief and greater morality?
While I think a nice pat on the back is always a good way to start the day, I have some reservations. For example, in the first two experiments, participants were asked to rate the ‘wrong-ness’ of a behavior on a scale of 1-100. I am going to take a leap of faith and guess that most participants responded that date rape was wrong, but differed slightly on how completely wrong it was. What if exposure to science causes participants to be more likely to think in absolutes, rather than directly influencing moral thinking? In such a case, participants may be more likely to say that date rape is completely wrong and ignore any ambiguities in the story. I think it would interesting to see whether participants with greater exposure to science are also more likely to provide absolute answers to questions that are not moral in nature. For example: ” On a scale of 1 -100, how much do you like ketchup?”
That being said, I do find it fascinating that individuals primed with scientific vocabulary were more likely to split $5 more evenly between themselves and a stranger. What do you think of the study? Are you convinced that science promotes morality? Or, are you also skeptical? Comment below!
Note: Ma-Kellams & Blascovich (2013) is an open access, so if you want to know more you should check out the paper itself here.
 Gervais, Will M. and Ara Norenzayan (2012) Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Science 336: 493-496.
 Ma-Kellams, Christine and Jim Blascovich (2013) Does “Science” Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgements and Behavior. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57989.