How stress influences our morality

For example, as stated we might be more prone to help a poor beggar on the street when we are stressed. Here, even after careful reflection we might come to the conclusion that this emotional reaction elicited by stress is the morally right thing to do after all. However, in other situations this might not be the case. As we have seen we are less prone to donate money to charity when stressed (cf. Vinkers et al., 2013). But is this reaction really in line with what we consider to be the morally right thing to do after careful reflection? After all, if we care about the wellbeing of the single beggar, why then should the many more people’s lives, potentially benefiting from our donation, count less? This depends of course on one’s moral stance, like utilitarianism or deontology. But it should at least give us a reason to pause and try to think twice whether we want to endorse our emotional reactions elicited by stress or not.


In summary, several studies demonstrate that acute stress affects our moral decision-making. It does so by increasing emotional intuitions elicited by the current situation. In moral dilemmas where it is to be decided whether someone should be killed for the greater good, stress decreases utilitarian answers. In other contexts, stress can both increase and decrease pro-social behavior. The dual-process theory of moral judgment in combination with an evolutionary perspective on emotional reactions makes sense of these seemingly contradictory results.


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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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