How stress influences our morality

Accumulating evidence from behavioral experiments and neuroimaging studies supports this theory. FMRI studies, for example, reveal that brain areas associated with emotional processing, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the amygdala, are more active when people judge personal moral dilemmas (Greene et al., 2004), e.g. when they judge the appropriateness of pushing someone off a bridge to save five people, compared to when the action is less personal (i.e. when no physical contact is involved). This is in line with Greene’s assumption that deontological responses stem from emotional reactions triggered in specific circumstances such as personal moral dilemmas. In another experiment, participants were primed to think more deliberately by completing the Cognitive Reflection Test before answering moral dilemmas. The Cognitive Reflection Test contains a set of questions, which require suppressing the intuitive incorrect answer (Frederick, 2005). Participants who first completed the Cognitive Reflection were twice as likely to give utilitarian judgments to personal moral dilemmas than participants who didn’t (Paxton, Ungar, & Greene, 2012). These and many other findings suggest that the dual-process theory captures important aspects of our moral thinking. But how does all this relate to stress?

Stress triggers our moral gut reactions

When talking about stress, it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is short-lived and usually brought about in specific, often challenging, situations such as riding a roller coaster. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is long lasting, emotionally painful and results from exposure to stressors over a prolonged period, like traumatic experiences. The findings presented in this article are about acute stress only. Acute stress is a physiological reaction and involves the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (Rohleder & Nater, 2009) and the release of the “stress hormone” cortisol among other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline (Kirschbaum & Hellhammer, 1994). As studies show, brain areas responsible for cognitive and emotional processing, such as the prefrontal cortex or the limbic system, can be affected by stress. This can have a profound effect on people’s cognitive functions: when people are stressed, they tend to make riskier decisions, show impaired strategic reasoning (Leder, Häusser, & Mojzisch, 2013), insufficiently adjust their automatic responses, and are less likely to consider all relevant options of a decision (Starcke & Brand, 2012).

Taking into account these findings, and in particular the fact that stress activates some of the same brain regions responsible for emotional processing, we can assume that stress should have an effect on moral decision-making as well. According to the dual-process theory of moral judgment, deontological judgments are expected to increase when controlled reasoning is inhibited. Stress does that by triggering people’s automatic emotional intuitions. This keeps people from thinking the situation over, which could override their gut reactions. Therefore, people should be less prone to engage in utilitarian reasoning in trolley-like dilemmas when they are stressed. This is exactly what Youssef and colleagues found. In one experiment, participants were put under acute stress by using a well-established standardized psychological stressor called Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), involving public speaking and difficult arithmetic tasks (Kirschbaum et al., 1993). Compared to the non-stressed control group, the stressed participants not only showed physiological responses like higher levels of cortisol, but were also more deontological in their decision-making when faced with personal moral dilemmas (Youssef et al., 2012). Hence, as hypothesized, the stressed participants seemed more prone to follow their emotional intuitions.

From the editors

Lucius Caviola and Nadira Faulmüller do a great job showing the complex relationship between being stressed and being a good person. They provide the one answer that will be bound to deflate those action-oriented managers, coaches, or policy-makers out there: it depends. But it's a great answer, one we should acknowledge more often. In psychology, few effects, if any, are true in all cases. Most will depend on the situation or the individual.

But here's one of the very practical ways in which the "it depends" answer is very interesting - societal debates about moral decisions. If different people in different situations react differently - we can begin to understand why conflicts arise over social moral issues. Let me give you some examples of how different types of moral reasoning (outlined above as pathways in the dual process model) create societal debates and disagreement. One example are debates over public health spending. When treatment for a specific condition suddenly becomes very expensive, elaborate moral reasoning may suggest shifting resources away from the expensive treatment to cure other conditions and save more lives. An emotional reaction may, however, suggest that it is just wrong for people with a certain condition to not be supported at all. Another example that sadly comes up much too often in recent years is military intervention. An utilitarian argument may be that it's right to intervene in a conflict zone - although the intervention would cause loss of lives, more lives would be saved in the long-term. However, the 'moral gut-feeling' reaction, as the authors call it, may be that any war is just wrong.

As the authors mention, none of the arguments above is 'right' or 'wrong', this will depend on your ethical standpoint. What seems interesting is that stress, in its many forms, may affect these moral debates by making people more likely to accept one argument over the other.

What do you think about this? Can you think of other such debates over moral issues? Do you think that stress could be a useful variable to understand how moral debates play out in society?

Diana Onu
Associate Editor

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