Does science promote morality?

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.

[1] Gervais, Will M. and Ara Norenzayan (2012) Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Science 336: 493-496.

[2] 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.

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10 comments on “Does science promote morality?

  1. Ayse Tezcan says:

    i have serious questions about the design of this study. it is not clear from the paper what the participant characteristics were. in study 1, the authors basically compared the participant majors and their responses to a senario. it is possible that people who chose these majors are already motivated with some moral inclination such as going into medicine, finding cure for a disease etc. not necessarily due to their science training. in the following studies, they supposedly compared a group exposed to an intervention vs controls; however, i did not see whether every effort was made to make these groups comparable in every possible way other than the exposure – the upbringing, former experiences, current convictions etc; very difficult goal to achieve. good attempt but i am not sure whether i buy the causal inference.

  2. Ria Pi says:

    Perhaps what promotes morality isn’t analytical thinking or science in itself, but rather the ideas and values conveyed by the scientific community.

    • Amy Dapper says:

      That is definitely a point that the authors made in the paper. In fact, they framed the article that way. I thought that this was interesting because I generally don’t think of science as value-laden.

      • Ria Pi says:

        Ah yes, it makes sense. I wonder whether science advertises certain values which people interested in it gradually adhere to, or people already possessing certain values are the ones drawn to science. I suppose both are true, to some extent.

  3. Cathy Newman says:

    I’m curious to know (and too lazy to actually look in the paper) if in the first study, the authors used the specific words “believe in science” to ask the participants to rate themselves. Having grown up in an evangelical Christian community, I have many friends who would give themselves a 7 on that scale, saying they strongly “believe in science,” but at the same time, they include in “science” things like intelligent design, Flood geology, biblical archaeology, etc. I know this may not be the point of this study, but I think at least theoretically it could be a confounding variable.

    • Amy Dapper says:

      Yes – the exact question posed to participants was “How much do you believe in science?”

      I also think the word choice was interesting. I generally don’t think of science as something to ‘believe’ in. I would like to know why the authors phrased the question that way.

  4. Ayse Tezcan says:

    this is the problem: it is difficult to know exactly how they defined their exposure and outcome. the actual paper does not provide any more specific info than that. they collected some demographic information and answers to questions regarding the participants’ concentrated field of study and the question “How much do you believe in science?” on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). methods don’t explain what the unit of measurement was and how these variables were used in calculation of associations (in this case causation i assume). at least it wasn’t clear to me.
    you are right self-assessment of one’s belief is quite subjective measure and what the criteria was for science is not mentioned.
    it is an interesting question but confounding factors and measurement instruments for dependent and independent variables and covariates need to be more developed.

  5. Cathy Newman says:

    (WordPress won’t let me reply to a comment without a WordPress account, hmmm…)
    I share your sentiments, Amy, about science not being something one “believes” in. I actually have a very strong aversion to the phrase “believe in science” (or, usually more specifically, “believe in evolution”) because it appears to place science at the same level as religious belief, i.e., “believe in evolution” vs. “believe in creationism.” And we all know that’s grossly inaccurate. I think that’s a big part of the problem of the public perception of evolution specifically, and science more generally, and I think scientists should completely remove that phrase from their vocabulary.

    Back on topic, after reading the paper, it’s hard for me to understand how they got this paper past the reviewers with the self-assessment question “How much do you believe in science?” This study addresses a very important issue in our society, and their results are interesting for sure, but I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in the results/conclusions given the flimsy methodology.

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