Some good news about everyday moral life

September 15th, 2014 by Sena Koleva

“To err is human, to forgive divine” (Alexander Pope, 1711). But what is also divine is finding out that you didn’t err (much). A paper in the latest  issue of the journal Science has given morality researchers a cause to feel great about the state of their field.

In an impressive new study, Hofmann and colleagues (2014) examined everyday morality by text messaging 1252 study participants 5x a day for 3 days and prompting them to report any moral or immoral events they experienced in the past hour: acts that they committed or were the target of, that they witnessed directly, or that they heard about. In each prompt the researchers also assessed the participants’ levels on various emotions, happiness, and purpose in life.

Collecting and making sense of this type of rich, text-based field data offers high ecological validity, but it can be extremely challenging and effort-intensive and is regrettably rare in morality research, and in psychology in general. Instead, most such research relies on more artificial methods and settings, e.g. tightly controlled lab experiments on unsuspecting (though increasingly, very much suspecting) college students, hypothetical decisions about unusual scenarios, reactions to moral stimuli while keeping still inside a brain scanner, large-scale Internet surveys (such as ours on this site), and so on. When more ecological data become available, they sometimes  paint a different picture than the one suggested by theories and findings arrived at with other methods.

But not this time! The Hofmann et al study is strikingly consistent with a number of moral psychological frameworks and phenomena under active investigation in the field, bringing scholars a collective sigh of relief.

For example, their participants reported committing and receiving more moral than immoral acts (i.e. good news! we tend to do and encounter more good than bad), but learn about twice as many immoral than moral acts (i.e. we talk about other people’s bad deeds more than their good). This finding is consistent with previous theorizing that our moral sense evolved primarily via third-party monitoring of moral behavior and reputation management (Dunbar, 1996; Haidt, 2012). In other words, we’ve got morality because we evolved to gossip and to want others to like and respect us.

Consistent with our own work here at, 80% of the reported moral events could be categorized into the five dimensions proposed by Moral Foundations Theory, offering resounding support for the theory itself, but also for the broader notion that everyday moral life is rich and  multidimensional. Morality extends beyond a singular moral concern with harm and the reduction of suffering (see my take on this topic here). Consistent with our own analysis of open-ended text data, Hofmann and colleagues also found evidence that everyday moral events feel along 3 additional dimensions: Honesty, Liberty/oppression, and Self Discipline. For over a year, we’ve discussed adding these exact dimensions to our framework, so we are extremely excited and encouraged that a completely independent research team using a different method has arrived at a very similar conclusion. Lastly, the study replicated one of the landmark findings based on MFT obtained using questionnaire data from, namely that liberals and conservatives place different emphasis on the five moral foundations. Hofmann et al.’s data showed that, even when controlling for religiosity, liberals were more likely than conservatives to report events related to Fairness, Honesty, and Autonomy, whereas conservatives were more likely to report events related to Loyalty and Sanctity.

The new study confirmed two other moral phenomena that have come out of lab research: moral contagion and moral licensing. Namely, people who reported being the targets of moral acts within the last hour were significantly more likely to subsequently report acting morally themselves, consistent with findings of moral contagion (i.e. good news again! we tend to “pay it forward”). However, moral contagion’s evil twin — moral licensing — also found support, wherein committing a moral act earlier in the day was associated with greater likelihood of subsequently committing an immoral act (i.e. bad news! once we’ve done our good deed for the day we feel licensed to be jerks later on).

Several other interesting patterns emerged. Not surprisingly, being treated morally increased one’s happiness and being treated immorally decreased it. What is more intriguing is that the greatest increase in a sense of purpose and meaning in life came after reports of having acted morally oneself. This is consistent with previous work, and suggests that while our moment-to-moment happiness depends on (how we are treated by) others, our larger sense of purpose in life is our own doing. More good news, right?

Another interesting pattern was that religious and non-religious people did not differ in their reports of how many moral or immoral deeds they committed. While we should keep in mind that these data are based on participants’ self-report of their own moral/immoral behavior (and all the biases self-reports might bring along), it is nevertheless surprising that there was no evidence of a heathen effect.

In short, a new study with a unique “out in the real world” method suggests this about our moral psychology:

  • we tend to give and receive more good deeds than bad, but
  • we mostly hear about the bad
  • when someone does us a kindness, we tend to pay it forward, but
  • then tend to rest on our laurels
  • holding religious beliefs doesn’t make us more moral or less immoral, but
  • holding a liberal or a conservative political ideology does affect our moral experiences
  • being the targets of moral deeds makes us happy while the reverse makes us unhappy, but
  • we feel our lives have the most purpose when we act morally ourselves
  • even though most moral psychology research relies on artificial methods removed from people’s everyday lived experiences, the insights generated appear right on track. Phew!
Posted in cellphone users, everyday morality, moral behavior, moral emotions, moral foundations, moral psychology, smartphone research, social psychology | 1 Comment »

Can Newspapers Emulate the Psychographic success of Magazines?

April 4th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

While newspaper circulation continues to decline, many magazines have held their own in the digital age. Magazines differ from newspapers in that they have a more defined “identity”, such that Chip Conley (who now helps run a similar effort at AirBNB) developed successful boutique hotels around the concept of a magazine.

“We determine which magazines will best define the hotel, and then we come up with the five adjectives that best describe that magazine,” explained Conley in a recent Forbes interview.  ”We’ve found that the people who fall in love with a hotel are people who use those five adjectives to aspirationally describe themselves. The Hotel Rex, in San Francisco, is based on The New Yorker, and the adjectives are “clever, literate, artistic, worldly and sophisticated.” When you check out of the Rex you feel like we’ve refreshed your identity. We’ve created an ideal habitat for you.”

There is a lot of research detailing how, as societal wealth increases, consumers’ needs are moving out of the realm of utility and into the realm of lifestyle and aspiration.  Newspapers can’t compete by being simply informational, in a world where information is cheap and ubiquitous.  What aspirational values can a newspaper help a reader fulfill?

A lot of my research has been about showing that different people have very different aspirational goals (values), not just goals that people in California deem readily aspirational like feeding the poor or achieving world peace, but also goals like being loyal to their group, keeping faith with family traditions, providing for one’s family, achieving success, etc.  These later aspirational goals (among others) may prove more fruitful in a more conservative environment.  The Army has a good case study in the use of such values toward achieving organizational goals.  I would definitely recommend that forward thinking newspapers attempt to fill a specific aspirational niche, as a result.

Once a niche is decided, a news organization can consciously leverage the fact that these goals have specific storytelling and emotional triggers.  For example, in work that I’ve been doing with Zenzi‘s Social Values project, our research indicates that newspapers that wants to serve more traditional aspirations may want to have more stories with happy endings, while a newspaper that wants to serve more hedonistic aspirations might want to instead consider featuring stories about people from far away places.  Emotions such as disgust, empathy, and anger vary widely and predictably amongst people with different aspirational goals and stories could be framed accordingly.  Editors likely have an intuitive sense of these relationships, but making them more explicit can bring cohesion to marketing, editorial, and journalistic practices toward a singular newspaper voice that better speaks to the higher-order needs of consumers in the modern age.

- Ravi Iyer
ps. Groups that wish to learn more about similar insights may wish to visit Zenzi’s Insights page.
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Moral Foundations of Windows vs. Mac Users

March 11th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

Recently, the topic came up of whether values profiles (and Moral Foundation Scores more specifically) predict behavior.  On the one hand, social and contextual factors often loom larger than individual factors in determining moral behavior.  On the other hand, it seemed rather unlikely that something as central as a persons values would not predict their behavior.  While the effects may be small and indirect in many cases, I would expect a person’s value profile to predict almost everything they do in life.  As a test case, I decided to examine whether moral foundation scores, which measure how much a person cares about harming others, fairness, obeying authority, being loyal, and being pure, in the context of moral judgments, predict whether a visitor to visited using a Mac vs. a PC.  Below is the graph.

The Values Profile of Mac vs. PC Users

The Values Profile of Mac vs. PC Users

While all visitors to are generally liberal, it looks as if Windows users are more conservative than Mac users, within this group.  Note that while this isn’t a representative sample, in some ways it is better for answering this question as the users in this sample have such similar characteristics that many variables are naturally controlled for.  Windows users appear to value harm less and purity more.

The take home message for me is that while context certainly matters, so to does a person’s values, even for relatively unrelated decisions, such as which computer to use in daily life.

- Ravi Iyer

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People in a Bad Mood Judge Others Harshly…Unless Made Aware of Their Bad Mood

March 6th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

One of the many great posters I saw at the main conference for Social and Personality Psychology belonged to Mayuko Onuki, a graduate student at the University of Southern California.  I’ll let her introduce the poster herself.

This is a link to the full poster: Onuki_Poster SPSP2014.

Along with colleagues at USC, Onuki analyzed the effects from 55 separate studies which show that people who are sad tend to judge others more harshly.  Beyond establishing the baseline effect, which was indeed significant, they looked at the differences between studies to see what may account for smaller or larger effects.  For those of us who wish to reduce harsh judgments within or across groups, which may be exacerbated by foul moods, the boundary conditions for the effects of mood on judgments are important.  For example, they found that effects were smaller when individuals were aware of the source of their sadness, suggesting that one possible way to reduce harsh judgments among individuals who are in a bad mood is to have them take a moment to consider that the source of their bad mood may not be the individuals they are judging.

Like all research on unpredictable human beings, there are limitations here.  Social science findings are best thought of as parables, giving you evidence for ideas that may or may not apply to your current situation through data-driven, as opposed to narrative-driven stories.  Perhaps the next time you are trying to bring two groups together on a dark rainy day where a foul mood permeates the room, you’ll consider this data-driven parable and consider pointing out the weather.  And maybe the groups you are working with will be a little bit less harsh on each other.  If anyone does have stories which mirror this research, please do contact us.

- Ravi Iyer

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What Psychologists Could Learn From Data Science About Exporatory Research

February 28th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

I recently attended the main conference for social psychologists, even as I’m slowly transitioning to think of myself less as an academic and more as a data scientist.  Of course, the term data science is a pretty poor term as all science has to do with data, but I think it serves a purpose in that there are methods for answering questions with data that operate across the domain where the data was collected.  There is no real reason why a person well trained in understanding and analyzing data can’t apply their techniques on medical data, sports data, psychological data, and online data.  In fact, research on the wisdom of crowds would suggest that any discipline would benefit from analyzing data in different ways as colleagues are likely to make correlated errors concerning understanding anything.  This is certainly true in social psychology, where a common error that has been made is the under-valuing of exploratory research.

To our credit, social psychologists are beginning to understand this.  Many years after Paul Rozin formally published a great article concerning the need for more diverse ways of researching questions, psychologists are starting to accept the idea that exploratory research has value alongside the experimental methods that are so popular.  Below is a picture from one of several such talks given.


It’s great that psychologists are willing to consider exploratory approaches.  However, I don’t think we necessarily need to pretend like we are starting from scratch.  It seems like many psychologists want to simply let people fiddle with data in the haphazard ways they have been doing, label it exploratory, and then get on with “real” (confirmatory) research.  This is an area where data science, with it’s emphasis on how to automatically, efficiently extract well-supported insights from large datasets, has a big head start.  What can data science offer psychologists?

- More efficient exploration.  Running haphazard regressions til you find a good model is inefficient for a number of reasons.  It takes a lot of human effort and then when you do find something, you have no real way to reproduce the algorithm that you used to find the result you did on a subsequent dataset.  To put it in more practical terms, every psychologist who wants to run exploratory regressions should at least understand GLMnet (details of which I’ll put in a future post).

-  Cross-validated exploration.  Data scientists have given a lot of thought to questions of how to be more sure that a result is true, when one is testing so many hypotheses that one is bound to find something by chance.  Cross-validation is not a cure-all, but then again, nor are relatively artificial lab studies.  Certainly a cross-validated exploratory finding is more likely to be true than a non-cross-validated exploratory finding.  Broadly, just as some experiments are greater evidence than less well-designed experiments, so too are some exploratory findings greater evidence than other explorations.  Of course, this last sentence will completely confound those who insist that publications can only publish “true” findings that are supported by p<.05 statistics, which leads me to my last point.

- Bayesian models of findings.   There was a ton of talk about the problem of false positives, but the entrenched interests of the journal system (IMHO) inhibit the paradigm shift that is needed, which is to think of findings and papers as evidence as opposed to truth.  Good publications are not true…they are merely stronger evidence.  And rejected publications are rarely worthless.  Rather, they may be weaker evidence or may not affect prior beliefs to quite the same degree.   Setting a high bar for publication is great for creating a tournament for job seekers.  But it’s a terrible way to find truth in an age where data and research is ubiquitous.  If you want to read a more detailed argument about this, I’d read Nate Silver’s Book.

There are some things that social psychologists are really good at.  They understand experimental methods and can critique them really well.  They understand measurement much better than most disciplines.  But there are some things that other disciplines do much better with data, such as exploration.  The banner of data science presents the opportunity to break down these barriers, so that the social psychologist can help the Google engineer design the perfect study to validate the results of their latest machine learning algorithm, while the political scientist helps the social psychologist with representative sampling and the Google engineer helps the political scientist explore the latest national survey in a far more efficient way and then mash up that data with more ecologically valid social media behavior.  And so, the end result is that there really isn’t a huge need for disciplinarity in an age of big data (which was a theme of Jamie Pennebaker’s presidential address at SPSP).  It actually gets in the way of us all being data scientists.

- Ravi Iyer

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Creating Shared Goals Using The Asteroids Club Paradigm

January 10th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

One of the most general and robust findings in social psychology is the power of situations to shape behavior.  For example, if you are in a situation where you are competing with others, you will tend to dislike them, whereas when you are cooperating with them, you will tend to like them.  This is relatively intuitive, yet we often fail to appreciate this in practice, and then we end up amazed when arbitrary groups put in competition end up in deep conflict.  If artificially created competitions can inflame divisions (e.g. sports fandom usually pits very similar people against each other), perhaps we can also manufacture cooperation to reduce division.
Jonathan Haidt (a director of CivilPolitics) conceived of the idea of The Asteroids Club with this in mind and the idea is currently being incubated by To The Village Square, a non-profit dedicated to improving political dialogue.  Below is an excerpt from an op-ed by Haidt in The Tallahassee Democrat:

Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams developing multiple competing visions for the voters to choose among. But when our political system loses the ability for national interest to come before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyper-partisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it paralyzes us in the face of so many impending threats.

What can we do about this? How can we free ourselves and our leaders from hyper-partisanship, and return to plain old partisanship? By joining the Asteroids Club! It’s a club for all Americans who are willing to grant that the other side sees some real threats more acutely than their own side does. It’s a concept developed with Tallahassee’s Village Square, which is hosting a series of Asteroids Club Dinner at the Square programs this year.

Asteroids Clubs would never hold debates. Debates often increase polarization. Rather, a local Asteroids Club would hold telescope parties in which members help each other to see approaching asteroids — one from each side — that they hadn’t really noticed before. Telescope parties would harness the awesome power of reciprocity. If we acknowledge your asteroid, will you acknowledge ours?

So come on, people! Dozens of asteroids are closer to impact than they were yesterday. Don’t wait for Washington to fix itself. Let’s just start working together, and if we can do it, it will be easier for Washington to follow our example. The alternative is for us to follow theirs.

If you are in the Tallahassee area, consider joining the event on Tuesday, January 14, 2014 from 5:30 to 7:30pm (more info at  At Civil Politics, we plan to both support the work of such groups, by giving them access to academic research and to support the work of academics, by giving them access to the findings generated by such real-world events.

- Ravi Iyer


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Murray-Ryan Budget Deal Illustrates the Importance of Good Personal Relationships

December 17th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

One of the reasons that we feel that politics has gotten more uncivil is that the relationships that used to bind partisans across parties have frayed.  Partisans of the past seemed to know how to compete for their policy priorities while still remaining cordial to each other.  It is no longer enough to question a politician's policies and we now question their motivation and character.  Social psychology research shows that it is much harder to cooperate with others when we do not have positive contact with them.

Of course, research in a lab may not map onto real world situations so it is important to note when real world examples confirm what is suggested in research.  Recently, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan, leaders of their respective parties were able to put together a bi-partisan budget deal that will ostensibly remove the threat of government shutdowns for two full years.  According to this Politico article, some amount of the credit for this deal can be given to the relatively warm personal relationship between Murray and Ryan.

Fresh off the campaign trail last year, Ryan and Murray sat down for breakfast in the Senate dining room last December, talking about their upbringings, their churches (both are Roman Catholic), two families and two states. They found more in common than they thought, Murray said.

“I had no idea what to know about this guy,” Murray said. “He ran for vice president, he was a political figure, he walked in, and we had a really good conversation about it, about his family, my family — about who we are. Honestly, his state was kind of compatible with mine — unless you talk about football.”

Ryan praised Murray on Thursday evening, calling her a “delight” and saying the talks were “very tough, very honest … but we kept our emotions in check and we kept working at it.”


Given the convergence of evidence from both social science research and real world examples, groups and individuals who wish to reduce inter-group conflict would be well served to consider how to increase positive relationships across groups.  

- Ravi Iyer

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Evidence Based Techniques for Transcending Political Divisions: Newt Gingrich Praising Nelson Mandela

December 9th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

Human beings are the only ultra-social species (e.g. we gather and cooperate in groups of thousands and millions) where there is not a common reproductive source (e.g. a queen bee or queen ant).  The trick that allows human beings to form such large scale groups is in our moral motivations, which enable us to suppress individualistic goals in service of the group.  This trick is powerful and has a dark side, whereby we can demonize and reflexively oppose anything that benefits the other group.

This phenomenon was evident following the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, who generally is more likely to be cited as a role model by liberals and minorities.   For example, some members of the conservative base reacted negatively to praise of Mandela by conservatives like Ted Cruz.  The motivations to deny moral credentials to members of an opposing group are strong, yet psychological research suggests that one can mitigate the effect by positing larger super-ordinate groups with common goals and by demonstrating positive relationships between members of different groups.

Newt Gingrich demonstrated both of these tactics in a recent statement, entitled "What would you have done?"

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country. [Freedom as a super-ordinate goal across groups ]

When he visited the Congress I was deeply impressed with the charisma and the calmness with which he could dominate a room. It was as if the rest of us grew smaller and he grew stronger and more dominant the longer the meeting continued. [Demonstrating personal attachment ] 

Many of the ways to reduce inter-group division that we at Civil Politics wish to highlight are used regularly by politicians with good intuitions who understand moral psychology at an implicit level, without necessarily knowing the social science that supports what they do.  We hope to make these techniques more explicit so that any interested group or individual can use these methods to break down group divisions consciously as well.

- Ravi Iyer

  If you want to hear more on hive psychology, consider watching this video:

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New Research shows that Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue

December 3rd, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

A recent article by Kaitlin Toner, Mark Leary, Michael Asher, and Katrina Jongman-Sereno at Duke University examined whether "rigidity" is something that is unique to conservatism or something that all extremists feel.  I put "rigidity" in quotes because the term connotes something negative and actually reflects agreement with statements like ("Anyone who is honestly and truly seeking the truth will end up believing what I believe"), which may reflect rigidity, but also could be said to be measure confidence, certainty, or honest belief that one is right.  Indeed, there is something to be said for avoiding "flip-flopping".

The authors surveyed 527 mechanical turk users and found that while conservatives scored higher on general measures of "dogmatism" (again in quotes because one man's dogmatism is another man's unwavering commitment to principle), both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives were more likely to say that their view was "totally correct – mine is the only correct view" when asked about specific political issues.  Given that most beliefs occur in the specific, rather than in the abstract, it would seem that this is another case of the dark side of moral conviction, whereby extreme views correlate with behaviors that can have negative consequences.

It is for this reason that increasing the influence of moderates is one concrete method for groups to create more cooperation and less conflict.

- Ravi Iyer

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California shows how raising the influence of moderates increases functional government

November 16th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

While there is certainly reason to be cautious in proclaiming California's only recently functional legislature as a success, recent legislative success, with Republicans backing liberal ideas and Democrats backing conservative ideas, suggests that some recent structural reforms have created a more civil and functional legislative environment.  Among the reforms recently enacted are:

- Redistricting by a non-partisan commission, leading to more balanced/competitive districts
Non-partisan primaries, where the top 2 finishers, regardless of party, run against each other.

Both of these reforms make politicians more accountable to the broader electorate, instead of to the more extreme members of each party which tend to dominate partisan primaries.  

At CivilPolitics, we feel that these reforms are particularly likely to be the cause of a more civil legislative environment, given that their effect would have been predicted by research on "the dark side of moral conviction", which illustrates how our noble intentions can often lead us to be blind to the negative side-effects of realizing these intentions.  Introducing accountability to those who are more balanced in terms of their worldviews will naturally mitigate the danger of excess moral conviction leading to extreme political positions, of the sort that have led Washington D.C. to dysfunction.

From the New York Times:

“It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues,” he said. “They were afraid of getting primaries. Now, it’s not just their base they have to appeal to.”

Adam Mendelsohn, a former senior adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who championed the ballot changes, said they were altering the nature of the Legislature but also his own party.

“It gives Republicans the chance to break from their caucus on certain issues,” he said. “It is very different than it was four or five years ago.”

Democrats may also be changing. The state Chamber of Commerce reported last month that 39 of the 40 bills it had described as “job-killing” — regulatory legislation that typically was supported by Democrats — had been defeated this year.

“In the freshman class, a lot of the folks had moderate voting records,” said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat who was elected to the State Assembly last year, evidence of the need for many legislators to appeal beyond the Democratic base.

- Ravi Iyer


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