Monday, 31 January 2011

Closing our eyes affects our moral judgements

We experience emotion more intensely with our eyes closed
The simple act of closing our eyes has a significant effect on our moral judgement and behaviour. Eugene Caruso and Francesca Gino, who made the observation, think the effect has to do with mental simulation, whereby having our eyes closed causes us to simulate scenarios more vividly. In turn this triggers more intense emotion.

Throughout the study, Caruso and Gino concealed the true aim of the research from participants by telling them that part of the investigation was about judging the quality of head-phones. Participants were asked to listen to the rest of the study instructions through a pair of head-phones with a view to rating the sound quality. Crucially, half the participants were asked to listen to the different instructions and scenarios with their eyes closed - ostensibly to help their judgment of the sound quality - whilst the remainder listened with their eyes open.

Across the first three studies, the following effects were observed: participants with their eyes closed who heard a hypothetical scenario in which they deliberately over-estimated hours worked (so as to charge more) judged the act as more unethical than participants who heard the same scenario with their eyes open. Participants who heard the instructions for a simple financial game with their eyes closed subsequently shared money more fairly than participants who heard the instructions with their eyes open. And participants who listened to a hypothetical scenario with their eyes closed, in which nepotism and self-interest had biased a recruitment decision they'd made, judged that act as more unethical than did participants who heard the same scenario with their eyes open. Follow-up questions showed that the eyes-closed participants had visualised the scenario more vividly.

A fourth study was similar to the last except that some of the participants were given an explicit instruction to visualise the nepotism scenario as vividly as they could. This instruction led the eyes-open participants to judge the nepotistic act more harshly, similar to the eyes-closed participants. Overall, there was no evidence that the eyes-closed participants had simply paid more attention to the scenario than the eyes-open participants, but they did experience more negative, guilt-based emotion and it's this effect that probably underlies the study's central finding.

'Although scholars from different fields have provided important insights in understanding why people commonly cross ethical boundaries, little research has examined potential solutions that are easily implementable,' the researchers said. 'Here we identified a simple strategy: closing one's eyes, people are likely to simulate the decision they are facing more extensively and experience its emotional components more vividly. As a result ... people may be more sensitive to the ethical nature of their own and others' decisions, and perhaps behave more honestly as a result.'

ResearchBlogging.orgCaruso, E., and Gino, F. (2011). Blind ethics: Closing one’s eyes polarizes moral judgments and discourages dishonest behavior. Cognition, 118 (2), 280-285 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Carol said...

Isn't it interesting that moral decisions made in a dimly lit room tend to be less ethical, while those made with our eyes closed tend to be more ethical? Different processes, obviously, but interesting.

JW_Firth said...

Carol, perhaps it isn't unrelated - a dimly lit room is probably making our visual system work harder, and therefore making it even harder to engage in vivid imagery the way described above.

JW_Firth said...

Or it could just be that we have formed cultural associations with dimly-lit rooms that make immoral acts seem more socially acceptable in that context.

Anonymous said...

or perhaps once we are in the dimly lit room the moral decision has already been made whether we acknowledge it or not.

Trevor said...

When we're in a dimly lit room there is less of a chance that our immoral actions will be detected by others, reducing the chance of retribution. Thieves don't break in at night because they're visual systems are working harder.

Anonymous said...

I have a tendency to closed my eyes when I find myself in difficult or tense situations and before making a decision. I find it to be a good coping mechanism. After reading this, it makes perfect sense.

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