For many, brain hard-wired to view immoral behavior as impossible, study finds

BOSTON — If you’ve ever felt like you just can’t do anything immoral or wrong, there might be reasons for your apparent inability to sin that go beyond your strong moral code, a new study finds.

Researchers at Harvard University, through a series of three experiments, determined that people are actually hard-wired to believe certain immoral actions aren’t physically possible, even if they were.

The authors recruited as many as 498 men and women, who were typically in their early- to mid-30s, for each individual exercise. The goal of the research was to examine what made an individual deem an action or task “impossible.”

Morals & ethics
A new study finds that many people view immoral behaviors more than simply wrong — they’re physically impossible for them to accomplish.

In the first experiment, participants were presented with a variety of situations that were either immoral or physically impossible, and asked to rate whether each given situation was possible. The participants were given a background story for each situation before making a decision.

For example, a question might look like:

Josh is on the way to the airport to catch a flight for a hunting safari in Africa. He leaves with plenty of time to make it there, but his car breaks down on the highway. Now Josh is sitting in his car near a busy intersection and knows he needs to get to airport soon if he is going to catch his flight.

Is it possible or impossible for Josh to [(a)] hail a taxi at the intersection, [(b)] fix his car by banging on it, [(c)] teleport himself to the airport, [(d)] sneak onto public transportation, or [(e)] sell his car for a ride to the airport?

Half of the study’s participants were instructed to respond within a second-and-a-half, while the other half were told to wait at least a second-and-a-half.

Interestingly, the researchers found that when participants were given more time to reflect on their answer, they judged about 25 percent of immoral actions to be impossible. Those given less time, however, were almost twice as likely to call an immoral action impossible.

“If people have time to reflect on this, they’re going to use their well-formed, reasoned understanding of which things are possible and impossible,” co-author Jonathan Phillips, a postdoctoral fellow at the university, tells the Harvard Gazette. “But when they have to answer quickly, they don’t have time to do that, so they have to rely on this default idea of which things could even happen in the first place.”

Fiery Cushman, an assistant professor of psychology who led the study with Phillips, believes the findings could help others stick to their morals.

“Maybe it’s easier to do the right thing if your brain is designed to treat the wrong thing … as if it were impossible,” says Cushman. “Because if you admitted something was possible, it might start to feel pretty tempting.”

The study’s findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may lay the groundwork for various future investigations, including why some individuals repeatedly commit immoral deeds.

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