How stress influences our morality

Another study conducted by Starcke, Ludwig, and Brand (2012) confirmed—and extended—these findings, observing that in addition to changes in judgments, participants took longer to come to a decision when they were stressed. This is in line with the finding that reaction times are significantly higher when people have to complete a simultaneous demanding task while judging moral dilemmas, even though answers remain the same (Greene, Morelli, Lowenberg, Nvstrom, & Cohen, 2008). This seems to indicate that people, even when distracted by either another task or by stress, are motivated to try to give a deliberate answer—they just need more time. But, in cases where people are under time pressure and thus are unable to think deliberately, they tend to give more deontological responses (Suter & Hertwig, 2011). As we can see, this is all in line with the dual-process theory of moral judgment.

Moral judgments seem to be affected by stress only when the situation elicits an emotional reaction strong enough to be impacted by the stress reactions such as trolley-like personal moral dilemmas. For example, Starcke, Polzer, Wolf, and Brand (2011) used everyday moral dilemmas that were less extreme compared to the trolley dilemma, for example, asking participants whether they would leave a message to the owner of a car that they had accidentally scratched. They did observe an association between people’s cortisol levels and egoistic judgments in those dilemmas considered to be most emotional. However, the researchers failed to find a significant difference in judgments between stressed and non-stressed participants, presumably because the moral vignettes used in this study did not elicit emotions that were strong enough to cause a difference compared to trolley-like personal moral dilemmas.

Nonetheless, many of us are confronted with highly emotional moral situations in real life in which our judgments could be influenced by stress. For example, people might be more prone to help a child beggar on the street if they feel stressed after an uncomfortable meeting at work. Even more worryingly, doctors who face life-and-death decisions might be influenced by the daily stress they experience.

Stress can increase or decrease pro-social behavior

Does the fact that stress enhances emotional reactions mean that people behave more pro-socially when they are stressed as claimed in Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk? The answer is: it depends.

Social psychologists define pro-social behavior as voluntary actions that are intended to benefit others (Dovidio, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner, 2006). This can be motivated by either selfish (egoistic) or selfless (altruistic) reasons (Piliavin, 2009). The relation of pro-social behavior to deontology and utilitarianism is less obvious because of differing normative interpretations of pro-sociality. In the trolley dilemma, for example, a deontologist might say that not pushing the man down the bridge is the pro-social and thus morally right action. A utilitarian, however, would argue that sacrificing one person in order to save five is more pro-social overall. Another crucial difference between the two ethical systems is their entailed scope of concern for others. Deontology obliges you to help those close to you, such as family members or people that you interact with. However, it does not pose the same obligation to help individuals that are less proximate to you. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, poses a duty to help everybody to the same extent irrespective of his or her distance to you. As a result, utilitarianism might feel more counterintuitive in certain contexts compared to deontology. This distinction between deontology and utilitarianism will prove useful when we take a look at the experimental findings.

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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