The Moral Gray Zone

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How context influences our sense of right and wrong.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part nine of ten (part eight).

An out-of-control train will kill five people. You can switch the train onto another track and save them—but doing so will kill one person. What should you do?


A series of experiments published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that on one day you’ll divert the train and save those five lives—but on another you might not. It all depends on how the dilemma is framed and how we’ve been thinking about ourselves.


Through the train dilemma and other experiments, the study revealed two factors that can influence our moral decisions. The first involves how morality has been defined for you, in this case around consequences or rules. For example, when researchers asked participants to think in terms of consequences, some readily diverted the train, thus saving four lives. On the other hand, those who prompted to think in terms of rules (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”) let the five die. But that factor was influenced by another that depends on memory and whether your past ethical or unethical behavior is on your mind—a memory of a good deed might make you more likely to cheat, for example, if urged to think of consequences. It’s the complex interaction between those two factors that shapes your decision.


That wasn’t the only study published during the past year that revealed how susceptible we are to context. One study found that people are more moral in the morning than in the afternoon. Another study, cleverly titled “Hunger Games,” found that when people are hungry, they express more support for charitable giving. Yet another experiment discovered that thinking about money makes you more inclined to cheat at a game—but thinking about time keeps you honest.


The bottom line is that our sense of right and wrong is heavily influenced by seemingly trivial variables in memory, in our bodies, and in changes within our environment. This doesn’t necessarily lead us to pessimistic conclusions about humanity—in fact, knowing how our minds work might help us to make better moral decisions

Image by Mark Fischer, licensed under Creative Commons.

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