After this mood induction procedure, participants were then presented with the trolley scenario. Some participants were asked: “Do you think it is appropriate to be active and push the man?” while others were asked “Do you think it is appropriate to be passive and not push the man?”.
Participants in a positive mood were more inclined to agree to the question, regardless of which way it was asked. If asked if it was okay to push, they were more likely to push. If asked if it was okay not to push, they were more likely to not push. The opposite pattern was found for those in a negative mood.
If mood directly changed our experience of potentially pushing — the moral emotion hypothesis — then putting people in a positive mood should have made them more likely to push, no matter how the question was asked. The ‘moral thought’ hypothesis, on the other hand, accounts for these results quite nicely. Specifically, it is known from previous research that positive moods validate accessible thoughts, and negative moods invalidate accessible thoughts. So, for example, if I ask you if it’s okay to push, you will begin to consider the act of pushing, making this thought accessible. If you’re in a positive mood, that mood acts on this thought process by making you more likely to feel as though this is an acceptable behavior – it validates the thought of pushing. On the other hand, if I were to ask if it is okay to not push, the positive mood should validate the thought of not pushing, leading you to feel like not pushing is an acceptable behavior. Negative mood, which invalidates accessible thought, has a parallel effect, but in the opposite direction. Thus, this idea fits well with the observed pattern of results in this experiment.
These findings raise some further questions, some of which psychologists have been attempting to answer for a long time. Emotions and logical thought are frequently portrayed as competing processes, with emotions depicted as getting in the way of effective decision-making. The results here are another demonstration that instead of competing, our emotions and our cognitions interact and work closely to determine our behaviors. In fact, some researchers have recently begun to suggest that the division between these two is rather tough to make, and there may not actually be any meaningful difference between thought and emotion. After all, if moods and emotions play a fundamental role in information processing, what differentiates them on a functional level from other basic kinds of cognitive processes, such as attention or memory? This paper obviously doesn’t resolve this issue, but it is certainly another piece of the puzzle.
It would also be exciting, as the authors say, to see how more specific emotions might influence our moral decision-making. Anger and sadness are both negative emotions, but differ in important ways. Could these subtle differences also lead to differences in how we make moral judgments?
This paper demonstrates that our professed moral principles can be shifted by subtle differences in mood and how a question is posed. Though there are plenty of implications for our daily lives, one that arguably screams the loudest concerns the yawning gap between how humans actually think and behave, and how the legal system pretends they think and behave. The relative rigidity of western law stands in stark contrast to the plasticity of human thought and behavior. If a simple difference in mood changes how likely one person is to throw another over a footbridge, then does this imply that the law should account for a wider variety of situational factors than it does presently? Regardless of how you feel, it is clear that this paper, and behavioral science in general, should contribute to the decision. Having a legal system based on reality is far preferable to one based on fantasy.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.