Does thinking about science trigger moral behavior?

Can something as simple as thinking about science affect moral behavior? It turns out, yes. In a recent article for Scientific American, assistant professor of psychology Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote about experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Santa Barbara, California, who wanted to test the idea that, despite current high-profile cases of academic fraud and mistrust in science, there is a deep-seated, positive perception of science and the scientific method as a moral pursuit. Specifically, says Valdesolo, they wanted to distinguish between people’s perceptions about the process of science versus perceptions about the practitioners of science.

The researchers’ resulting connection between scientific method and morality led to Valdesolo’s article, aptly called: Just Thinking About Science Triggers Moral Behavior.

(Read the article in full.)

More recently, Valdesolo was invited to talk about the research on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth segment. Transitioning from reasons why our faith has been shaken in science, Valdesolo then concisely outlines the experiments that led to the Scientific American article.

(Listen to the 7-minute segment.)

The CMC scholar said that in the study, participants were asked to rate the morality of a transgression, to see if it related to their belief in science. And what they found was that the more people believed in science, the more strongly they condemned a moral transgression. Once this correlation was established, researchers then engaged in controlled experiments using a technique called priming, “in which,” Valdesolo says, “you make an idea or category salient to someone. You get them to think about––in this case––science, using words like logic and hypothesis.

“When you get people to think about this category, and their behavior changes afterward, it’s the result of thinking about that category,” he says.

When they used this technique, researchers said participants judged transgressions more severely. The participants also reported higher pro-social intentions (for example, they were more likely to donate to charity, give blood, volunteer etc). And finally, Valdesolo says, “they showed that priming in this way changes moral behavior.”