Suppose you actually do have an angel over your shoulder telling you the right thing to do. That angel probably wouldn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. A recent study in Science aimed at uncovering how we experience morality in our everyday lives suggests that religious people are no more moral—or immoral—than non-religious people. Whether or not we believe that divine precepts give us guidance, our behavior is remarkably similar.
The fact that atheists are apparently as moral as believers will be counterintuitive to some. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov famously worries, “But what will become of men then…without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”
In late 2007, when Mitt Romney was still uncertain whether he could win the GOP presidential primary, he made a speech on religion to reassure a leery electorate. His Mormon faith was no reason to reject his candidacy, he argued. What really mattered was that he was religious, and thus had the same moral beliefs as other religious people. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said, insinuating that a free but godless people might form an unruly mob. Later in the speech, he added, “Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”
Yet Dmitri Karamazov and Mitt Romney are likely wrong. People who don’t fear that justice will be meted out in an afterlife are apparently no more vicious, cruel, or licentious than a believer.
The current study breaks new ground in a few different ways. Perhaps most importantly, previous psychological studies of moral responses relied on observations in laboratory settings. This study, however, uses a method that allows researchers to escape the lab and catch glimpses of how participants think about morality as they go about their lives. Researchers using the method, known as “ecological momentary assessment,” periodically contact participants to report their feelings.
In this study, over 1,200 people were texted five times a day over the course of three days. The texts asked if they’d committed, experienced, or heard moral or immoral acts in the previous hour. If a participant answered yes, there were follow-up questions that prompted him or her to describe the event and some of his or her reactions to it. The researchers collected over 13,000 responses, almost 4,000 of which described a moral or immoral event. The acts ranged from the mundane to the unexpected: Assisted a tourist with directions because he looked lost. At work, someone stole my partner’s nice balsamic vinegar while he was off shift and most likely took it home with them. Hired someone to kill a muskrat that’s ultimately not causing any harm.
“There have been hundreds of morality studies, and the vast majority have involved presenting people with hypothetical scenarios or dilemmas and directly asking them to make moral judgments,” wrote Jesse Graham, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, in an email to The Daily Beast. “This has told us a lot, but it hasn’t told us much about how morality plays out in daily life. This study’s use of smartphone technology allows for a more ecologically valid picture of what kinds of moral events and situations people actually encounter outside the lab.”
Daniel Wisneski, a collaborator on the study and assistant professor at St. Peter’s University, said that “heightened ecological validity was a goal of the study.” He added that “the method is not a better method, but complementary to other methods.” Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at University of California at Riverside who maintains a blog on the philosophy of psychology, wrote in an email, “Since the literature on moral cognition has so far been dominated by laboratory studies and online surveys, with relatively few studies of moral behavior sampled in everyday contexts, I think it’s exciting to see researchers expanding their methodology in this direction.”
The main notable difference between religious and non-religious people was that while both groups reported experiencing similar moral emotions, such as shame and gratitude, religious people who described their feelings were somewhat more intense.
But there is reason to be cautious about the results. The study relies on the participants in the study to self-report honestly and accurately, and participants might be embarrassed to reveal immoral acts. People also have a tendency to overestimate how moral they have been. Schwitzgebel believes that there are inherent problems with self-reported studies, but they can offer valuable research nonetheless. “It’s a matter of weighing concerns about the inaccuracy of self-report against concerns about how representative laboratory behavior is of behavior in non-laboratory contexts,” he said.
Wisneski agreed that the concern about self-reporting is a “valid critique” of his study. He observed, however, that many participants report committing immoral acts such as adultery, which is encouraging (at least as far as the accuracy of the study is concerned).
The study did not limit itself to comparing views of religious and non-religious people. It also compared the views of people with different political ideologies. According to one recently proposed psychological theory, the Moral Foundations Theory, there are several different grounds for finding an act moral or immoral. One act may be considered immoral because it harms someone. Another act, however, may be considered immoral not because it is harmful but because it evinces disloyalty. Previous laboratory experiments using the Moral Foundations Theory framework had shown that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations. For example, conservatives are more likely to cite acts that exhibit respect for authority as moral, while liberals are more likely to consider acts that exhibit fairness as moral. The current study confirmed these differences between liberals and conservatives outside the laboratory, but not to a striking degree. “Moral Foundations Theory found some support in theoretically predicted directions, but this was dwarfed by a huge amount of overlap between liberals and conservatives,” said Wisneski. “If we watch Fox or MSNBC, we might think that liberals are from Mars, conservatives are from Venus. But there are far more similarities.”
The researchers deliberately refrained from defining “moral” and “immoral” for study participants. Leaving the definition of “morality” open enabled the researchers to see the variety of acts that some people considered moral or immoral. “There’s always the tradeoff between the clarity of telling participants exactly what you’re looking for, and the risk of missing important aspects of their moral lives,” said Graham. “For instance, if I think morality is fundamentally about fairness and justice, and define it as such for participants, then I will get a more precise and specific set of moral events from them, but I will miss a lot of what they find morally good or bad.”
There’s some reason, though, to think most people were pretty much on the same moral page. All the moral and immoral acts that participants texted to researchers were each independently rated by several judges who did not know the purpose of the study nor anything about the participants. There was a remarkable level of agreement. The judges in aggregate differed from the participant in their opinion of the morality of an act less than 1 percent of the time.
In all, Schwitzgebel thinks that this study has been an important step forward in empirical research of morality. “In studying as complex a phenomenon as moral and immoral behavior, one wants to employ a wide variety of different methods with their various complementary advantages and disadvantages. There’s not going to be any one single perfect method,” he said. “So it’s terrific to see the literature expanding in new methodological directions like this.”