FRIDAY, March 11 (HealthDay News) -- People would prefer to
allow bad things to happen rather than cause them, especially if
they know others are watching, says a new study.
This is because people know others are more likely to think
badly of them if they do something wrong rather than if they simply
let it happen, according to the research in the journal
"Omissions and commissions (of sin) come up relatively frequently in everyday life, and we sometimes puzzle over them," Peter DeScioli, a moral psychologist at Brandeis University, said in a journal news release. "If a cashier gives you an extra $20 bill at the register, some people think it's okay to keep the money, but many of those people would never just swipe the $20 if the cashier wasn't looking."
It's long been believed that this is because the brain makes
different moral calculations when processing sins of omission (not
giving the $20 back) and sins of commission (stealing a $20
But in an experiment involving money, DeScioli and his
colleagues found that people actually tend to make these types of
moral decisions based on how others might judge them.
The researchers recruited subjects through Amazon.com's
Mechanical Turk website, which pays people small amounts of money
to do something. People could either take 90 cents of a dollar away
from an owner or let a 15-second timer run out, after which the
whole dollar was taken away from the owner, a 15-cent penalty was
taken out, and the rest (85 cents) was given to the taker.
Sometimes a third person was allowed to judge the taker's actions
and take money away from them for acting wrongly.
When the participants knew someone was there to judge them, 51
percent of them let the timer run out (even though this was worse
for everyone financially). The percentage was significantly greater
than those who let the timer run out when there was no outside
person to judge them.
And the participants were correct in their prediction: the third
did judge them more harshly if they "stole" the 90 cents,
leaving the owner with 10 cents, rather than if they let the timer
run out and the owner was left with nothing.
This type of research will help psychologists learn more about
the relationship between moral decisions people make on their own
(conscience) and decisions influenced by negative judgments by
others (condemnation), DeScioli said.
For more on moral education, visit the
University of Illinois at Chicago.