Psychology/Psychiatry

When Choosing What To Believe, People Often Choose Morality Over Hard Evidence

In new studies, many people "reported that morally good beliefs require less evidence to be justified, and that, in some circumstances, a morally good belief can be justified even in the absence of sufficient evidence."

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What happens when moral beliefs collide with documented evidence? For many people, it means doubling down on whichever compliments their worldview.

It's not hard to find evidence of this phenomenon in everyday life. Now, new research from Princeton University cognitive science researcher Corey Cusimano and Princeton psychologist Tania Lombrozo explore more about how and why this seems to be.

In a pre-publication paper titled "Morality justifies motivated reasoning in the folk ethics of belief," Cusimano and Lombrozo report that people "treat moral considerations as legitimate grounds for believing propositions that are unsupported by objective, evidence-based reasoning." The researchers also found that people who deemed beliefs morally good also considered those same beliefs logically sound, even when the "good" belief lacked supportive evidence.

"Across three studies, many people prescribed motivated reasoning to others, reported that morally good beliefs require less evidence to be justified, and that, in some circumstances, a morally good belief can be justified even in the absence of sufficient evidence," Cusimano and Lombrozo write.

What does it mean to engage in "motivated reasoning?"

Cusimano and Lombrozo conducted three studies. In the first, 441 women and 395 menaverage age 38, recruited through Amazon gig-work program Mechanical Turkread one of six stories about a character who "acquires strong but inconclusive evidence for a proposition that they have a moral reason to reject," as the paper puts it. Participants were then asked which version of things the main character was likely to believe, which the character ought to believe, and how close these beliefs matched what was likely to be true.

The result?

"Participants on average reported that what someone ought to believe should be more optimistic (in favor of what is morally good to believe) than what is objectively most accurate for that person to believe based on their evidence," states the paper. In addition:

Participants reported that, relative to an impartial observer with the same information, someone with a moral reason to be optimistic had a wider range of beliefs that could be considered 'consistent with' and 'based on' the evidence.

In two subsequent studiesencompassing a total of 1,254 participants, average age 40 in one study and 39 in the otherthe Princeton professors had participants read hypothetical conundrums then asked participants to predict or evaluate the characters' beliefs. This included "the extent to which formed beliefs were justified, were permissible, were supported by sufficient evidence, constituted knowledge, and were moral."

On average, participants "agreed more strongly that someone who had a moral reason to adopt a desirable belief had sufficient evidence to do so compared to someone who lacked a moral reason, even though they formed the same belief on the basis of the same evidence."

Likewise, "when someone adopted the morally undesirable belief, they were more often judged as having insufficient evidence for doing so relative to someone who lacked a moral reason (again, even though they formed the same belief on the basis of the same evidence)."

…But Why?
The authors offer two models for this system of rationalization. In the first model, moral concerns shift the correct criteria for making judgmentsfor instance, by lowering the amount of hard evidence deemed sufficient to justify a particular belief. "Morality changes how much evidence [people] consider to be required to hold [a particular] belief in an evidentially-sound way," the authors write.

Another theory model is that people view "a belief's moral quality"whether it's something considered good or bad to believe in a given situationas having its own independent weight, thereby providing "an alternative justification" for believing it.

The Princeton psychology experiments found evidence for both theories.

"Across all studies, participants routinely indicated that what a believer ought to believe, or was justified in believing, should be affected by what would be morally good to believe," Cusimano and Lombrozo write.

"Additionally, participants reported that moral concerns affected the standards of evidence that apply to belief, such that morally-desirable beliefs require less evidence than morally-undesirable beliefs."

Perhaps there's some small comfort in a part near the end of the paper, where the authors point out that plenty of people still support evidence-based reasoning and consider facts to be an important counter to feelings.

"It is important to note that we also found substantial evidence that people think beliefs ought to be constrained by the evidence," the researchers write. "While our findings show that people will integrate moral considerations into their belief evaluations, they also show that people think others should balance these considerations with the evidence that they have."

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  1. In new studies, many people “reported that morally good beliefs require less evidence to be justified, and that, in some circumstances, a morally good belief can be justified even in the absence of sufficient evidence.”

    Another thing we hardly needed a study to tell us.

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    3. Mostly peaceful.

    4. “What happens when moral beliefs collide with documented evidence? For many people, it means doubling down on whichever compliments their worldview.”

      Borders are bad, m’kay?

      Amusing to see the Open Borders deontologists at Reason condemning moral reasoning that ignores the consequences of that moral reasoning.

      So much projection, so lacking in self-awareness.

    5. “Now, new research from Princeton University cognitive science researcher Corey Cusimano and Princeton psychologist Tania Lombrozo explore more about how and why this seems to be.”

      They could start with an IQ test!

  2. “morally good beliefs require less evidence to be justified, and that, in some circumstances, a morally good belief can be justified even in the absence of sufficient evidence,” Cusimano and Lombrozo write.”

    Like global warming? Something tells me these guys are going to get a demand to withdraw that publication.

    1. Reminds me of AOC a little while ago saying “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

      This is the mantra of today’s politics: The narrative must be preserved at all costs — even the cost of the truth.

      1. Lenin, Goebbels, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini…it just keep being recycled like no one ever learned anything from history.

        Of course history is the first thing that’s recycled, no?

      2. Politics of the emotion. Apparently it’s normal to show your emotions when you speak. Nothing makes me vomit more than watching a politician tear or choke up – cuck or women.

        Remember how our politicians used to be? That is they conducted themselves as men leading nations of men.

        Yes. I said men.

        1. It’s bad enough the “progress”ives want to take society back to the 18th century. Taking us back to the 19th century isn’t much of an improvement.

    2. Wear a mask…kill a Jew….

    3. “Like global warming? Something tells me these guys are going to get a demand to withdraw that publication.”

      This is why that study makes no sense. How is “Global Warming” a morally good belief? Either the world is warming or it is not. Either it is caused by human action or it is not. Those “beliefs” have no moral standing. I might believe that Anthropogenic Global Warming is real, and still have the moral belief that it is BAD to do anything about it.

      Morals are not fact based. I can find you all sorts of “supporting evidence” that if you harvest little children’s organs, you can save hundreds of billionaires. I can provide all sorts of “supporting evidence” that when everyone gets just enough food to eat, there is no “inequality” in food outcomes. That evidence doesn’t tell us whether we have done something morally good or bad.

      1. It doesn’t matter whether global warming is real or anthropogenic – the club members is the beliefs that it is real to signal their group affiliation. That’s all it boils down to.

        Notice that the minute the member no longer feels to be a part of the group, they suddenly are compelled to put their beliefs (in this case, global warming) under the microscope.

        They do this to formulate a reason for leaving the group that spares their ego the shame of being outcast – or whatever it was that made them feel disaffiliated.

        Beliefs are merely a symbol of the members’ identity within the group. The harder they believe, the more they identify.

      2. I believe the point is not morality per se [do not kill, steal, lie…] but an adherence to a belief in something that is not fact based, but based on what they want to believe. Membership in the cult of climate change [as noted above, may or may not be fact based] is for it’s adherents a belief in what they equate with morality [what is “right”], in which case facts are of secondary concern. Ditto gun control, social justice, systemic racism…data is always trumped by moral superiority and the expectations of the club.

  3. BTW, this is why any political philosophy that heavily relies or leans “utopian” should be approached with caution. And that goes for everyone: Progressives/social justice, Libtertarians, Marxists, Right Wing Racial Purity types.

  4. That is a summary of a scholarly work in the social sciences: unnecessarily dense, impenetrable language that one wonders was really worth the effort to slog through for the nugget of information it contained.

  5. A study about how a person feels about what a fictional character should do in a fictional story featuring fictional facts. Study group had no moral stake in the outcome since it was fictional. I say the study itself is useless even if the conclusion is correct. just like a broken clock is right twice a day we just never know when its right

    1. Hardly useless; I am sure a large sum of money was involved, either as a grant or as salaries.

    2. I think you’re morally broken because you didn’t listen to the science.

      1. The climate science is settled, by a consensus of the leading climate experts.
        Just like the astronomical science was settled, by a consensus of the leading astronomy experts, before Galileo heretically tried to convince them they were wrong.

    3. I had a somewhat similar reaction, the questions asked are problematic. I just skimmed the paper, but e.g. the examples on p. 17 in the table, like should one treat an approaching woman as a doctor or nurse if you don’t know (but on the odds at that practice more likely a nurse), hope that one’s husband survives cancer against the odds (15% chance of > 1 year), etc.
      Isn’t it rational not to piss off health care providers and to give your spouse hope?! Yes one should plan for the negative outcome, update wills and healthcare directives etc., but what do the study authors expect even a rational evidence-based person to do in these situations?! Plan for the worst, hope for the best seems rational to me and not at all contemplated as valid by this study.

      Even off the top of my head, I can think of better situations like, instead of just assume one won’t get divorced even though 70% do, how about a more focused question like, sign a somewhat unfair prenuptial agreement or not, and even then there are rational factors that may impel one to act in a contrary way (e.g. if the stress of arguing over a prenuptial agreement is considered likely to damage the relationship and one knows that family law in one’s jurisdiction is reasonably fair regarding division of property, it may be a reasonable risk?).

  6. The “social sciences” in Western societies now actively RUN AWAY AND HIDE from the idea of actual DATA-GATHERING of the facts, because they ALREADY KNOW what is moral and immoral!!! If the FACTS might change our moral or morally-related beliefs?!?! OH, THE HORRORS!!!

    https://reason.com/blog/2017/10/03/brickbat-dont-ask-dont-tell#comment

    I am utterly SHOCKED to learn that NOT offending the “tranny brigade” of PC people is WAY more important than the actual happiness of trannies and potential trannies!!!

    1. ‘philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.’
      – Marx

      The premise of the Left is that they already infallibly know the right answer to every question.

  7. What do they mean by moral? Is the morality subjective or objective?

    1. Good question. The issue with comparing moral values is that different groups have radically different moral value systems. Just as an example, Christians and Muslims have very different value systems. How do you compare one to the other?

      1. not that different, more alike with each other than they are with atheists

    2. Tipper. Gore.

    3. In too many people, moral beliefs are those of their beliefs that they condemn other people for not agreeing with them about.
      Of course, some people condemn any and all disagreement with them about anything. There’s a critical difference between disagreement and condemnation. At least, in some of us.

  8. “acquires strong but inconclusive evidence . . . ”

    Good old Princeton. I gave up there.
    Inconclusive “evidence” CANNOT be strong.
    Humpty Dumpty and the left wing notwithstanding, words have meanings.

    1. reads almost like a case in point vis-a-vis the subject of this article.

  9. “When Choosing What To Believe, People Often Choose Morality Over Hard Evidence”

    …which explains some of the nonsense articles by ENB and other writers here.

  10. The lack of even a mention of the Non-Aggression Principle in the entire article is a huge omission. I believe that any action that violates the NAP is immoral. Oftentimes, the pursuit the truth of any matter motivating human action thus becomes immaterial and moot as a result!

    1. Is that from The Little Red Book perchance?

      1. Sorry. I’m not familiar with the little Red Book so I don’t even know if you are asking a straightforward question or being sarcastic. Though I strongly suspect the conclusion of my last sentence is far from being unique and singular, I made it entirely on my own many decades ago.

  11. This is a fucking word salad of nonsense.

    “The researchers also found that people who deemed beliefs morally good also considered those same beliefs logically sound, even when the “good” belief lacked supportive evidence.”

    What the fuck does that even mean? Of course Morals and Logic are going to be independent of of “facts” and evidence. How can a “fact” be good or bad, unless you have already adopted a moral belief.

    For example:
    “20 mothers are shot each year while trying to steal bread for their starving children.”

    Is that fact “good” or “bad”? The answer depends completely on your morality- the premises by which you choose to view behavior as good or bad. Some might say stealing is always wrong, or that shooting someone for theft is too high a price. And since most of us don’t have a moral code that is prescriptive for every possible use case, we use LOGIC to deduce whether or not we should interpret that specific fact as good or bad.

    I have a moral belief in the NAP. What supportive evidence is going to change that moral belief? If you are going to try and list up a bunch of “supporting evidence” that says my belief is wrong, then that is just inserting your own moral beliefs. “Thousands of people may not get welfare and go hungry because of the NAP!” Well, according to my beliefs, maybe I favor liberty over the hunger of another person.

    1. You have to get about 20 pages into the paper before that’s explained. It’s not about whether evidence affects moral beliefs, but how moral beliefs swing factual judgments when evidence is strongly suggestive but inconclusive. The “beliefs” the researchers meant were beliefs regarding the facts in fictional scenarios they presented. Like, do you believe this fictional person had possessed cocaine after cocaine had been found in the person’s dorm room, if you think it’s moral to suppose people are not criminals? Do you believe this fictional lady was a surgeon rather than a nurse when 90% of the dental surgeons in that fictional practice are male, if you think it’s moral to think of the sexes equally?

      1. I wonder if they were able to control for mere optimism as a potential consideration vs morality?

  12. Well this certainly explains the church of climate change and its violent acolytes.

  13. “On average, participants ‘agreed more strongly that someone who had a moral reason to adopt a desirable belief had sufficient evidence to do so compared to someone who lacked a moral reason, even though they formed the same belief on the basis of the same evidence.'”

    Sounds rather like those who believe that there is “systematic” racism in all police departments and that cops wake up each day just to kill some innocent minority.

    The studies and facts prove that police have been getting better and better in their jobs.

    Oh, unrelated to the article, but many/most people living in high crime areas want the police around to keep criminal avtivity down.

  14. People are stupid.

    Firstly, belief requires no evidence. Therefore since any reason for a belief is arbitrary It is a pointless study.

    It is simply irrational to make decisions arbitrarily. It defines ignorance and bigotry.

    Secondly, all rational decisions are based on logic and science. They require hard evidence and sound reasoning to apply.

    Rational behaviour requires making decisions with intelligence and discipline using logic and science. The acceptance of this process defines civilization and morality.

    People are stupid when they confuse belief with reality.

    1. “Secondly, all rational decisions are based on logic and science.”

      But all rational decisions of consequence require a moral reason that is completely fact free.

      You can give me all the science in the world that says if we round up every first born child in the world, we can create an organ bank that will save billions of lives in the future. How does rationality or science help you understand whether you SHOULD do it?

      1. “ But all rational decisions of consequence require a moral reason that is completely fact free.”

        On the contrary, moral reasons or principles are and should be based on the facts demonstrated by logic.

        In your example, logically, if one innocent person has a right to life so does every other.

        1. “In your example, logically, if one innocent person has a right to life so does every other.”

          That is MY point. “If one innocent person has a right to life”.

          But do they have that right? That is the real ‘moral belief’. You can find no SUPPORTING evidence that people have a right to life. It is a belief that you hold- your axiomatic premise. Certainly, Logic is what you use to extend that out (and by the way, the ‘study’ viewed logic as suspect as belief- in that they contrasted it with people who have ‘supporting evidence’).

          1. Logic is the supporting evidence. Are you actually suggesting that you yourself neither have nor desire a right to the life you enjoy currently? Because in civilization we recognize that we choose a right to life.

            Logic never contradicts science. Please provide any example that you or anyone else believe does.

            1. Logically if you don’t choose life, your immediate death will benefit the rest of us through availability of resources and eliminating your murderous desires for the rest of us.

              What do you care if we kill you?

    2. All evidence is incomplete, so what do you believe based on the evidence you do have? That’s the type of belief the paper was about.

      1. While it is true that evidence is continually unfolding for those who recognize it the evidence we have that is based on sound logic and science is the best indicator of reality that we humans will ever be capable of perceiving.

        That’s all we have to rationally define reality.

        In civilization we don’t just throw it away because it may not be absolute and choose bigotry which doesn’t need it. That is a self fulfilling prophecy of ignorance.

  15. But the Smithsonian told us that objective, rational linear thinking, cause and effect relationships, and quantitative emphasis (all together, the scientific method), is White–and therefore wrong.

    So what else is there besides cave stories and chicken bones?

  16. Seems reasonable to me—when considering a course of action the results of which might be morally wrong, you should require better supporting evidence of the rightness of that course than when you’re confident the outcome will be morally right.

  17. Ladies and germs: Mormonism in a nutshell.
    The entire religion is based off feelings – discerning your reality from whether something “feels” right or not – evidence be damned.

    Feelings are exploited by cults and governments.

    Stick with the facts as best you can.

  18. Morals are themselves products of evidentiary reasoning. That the basis for the moral precedes the situation under scrutiny does not make it irrelevant.

    1. Of course not – the study is agreeing with that fact. It also goes as far as to say that the morals preceding the situation interfere with reasoning if we are to define sound reasoning as that which excludes emotion (morality) in favor of evidence-only.

  19. morally good beliefs

    Actions are moral or immoral; beliefs are not.

    If you think that holding certain beliefs is indicative of morality, you are a progressive, and likely a psychopath as well.

    1. Truthfully, I understood this article as Princeton Progtards starting to form a rationale on why religion belief and free exercise should be suppressed. To me, this is what set the stage:

      The researchers also found that people who deemed beliefs morally good also considered those same beliefs logically sound, even when the “good” belief lacked supportive evidence.

      In the bizzarro world of Progtardom, only their beliefs are logically sound, and only their standard is used to make that determination. This is also what communists do.

    2. “Actions are moral or immoral; beliefs are not.”

      How do you evaluate the morality of an action without some manner of belief? How can that which determines morality not itself be morality?

      Put another way – Are not actions the true physical manifestations of belief?

      1. Put another way – Are not actions the true physical manifestations of belief?

        Actions are the manifestations of many beliefs, together with a conscious choice to act.

        The belief that “race X is on average less intelligent than race Y” is not per se moral or immoral; it is merely either true or false. People can act on that belief in different ways.

        Progressives acted on this belief by imposing forced sterilization and segregation on the country. Those were evil actions.

        Many Christians opposed such policies because they believed in the equal dignity of all human beings and because they believed that interfering in procreation was evil. They may or may not hold the same belief about intelligence and race, it simply doesn’t matter.

        Classical liberals opposed such policies because they believe in the intrinsic right of all human beings to self-determination, and that individuals should not be judged based on statistics about a group. They may or may not hold the same belief about intelligence and race, it simply doesn’t matter.

        There are many ways in which beliefs can translate into action. That’s why beliefs are not per se good or evil, moral or immoral.

        Progressives think that they can become virtuous by holding the right beliefs and that people are evil because they hold the wrong beliefs; that’s because progressives think that beliefs translate directly into action.

    3. “Progressives are like psychopaths”

      A moral claim not constrained by evidentiary requirements, but which could probably use some.

      1. “Progressives are like psychopaths”

        A moral claim not constrained by evidentiary requirements, but which could probably use some.

        Well, since I didn’t actually make that statement, I can’t defend it.

        Let me just point out two things:

        (1) Claiming that someone is a psychopath isn’t a moral statement, it’s a scientific statement.

        (2) I suspect you, Tony, are a psychopath.

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  21. No offense, Ms. Brown, and your editor, but I can’t take a piece seriously in which “complements” is confused with “compliments.” Pretty basic stuff.

    1. Upvote this. ComplEment.

  22. I’m amazed at the absence (AFAIK) of social media pressure on Amazon to stop calling its human-automaton racket “Mechanical Turk.” The name is unwoke on so many levels. Not to give anyone any ideas here.

  23. Moving from ignorance to intelligence is at least a difficult process and in many cases impossible, while becoming ignorant is simply a self fulfilling prophecy of bigotry.

    The only way to make everyone equal, is to choose the lowest common denominator, ignorance.

    This is the objective of the cancel culture of bigotry. The coerced refusal to consider arguments.

    1. I’ll yield to your expertise at being an ignorant bigot.

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  25. The study itself gives an example of what the hell it’s talking about in its first couple of sentences. Good writing needs examples. One has a tendency to glaze over with the same three words arranged differently in 50 different sentences.

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  27. What a convoluted, poorly designed study. What are individuals’ reported reactions (not necessarily actual reactions) to a fictional study? How about, what are individuals’ beliefs about facts, beliefs about morality, and how the two correlate? Actual stuff.

    1. What exactly is “a belief about facts”.

      Either you recognize and accept facts and are considered rational or you don’t and aren’t.

  28. The difference between liberals and non-liberals is the difference between magical thinking and reason-based rational thought…

    1. I agree. And it’s liberals and progressives that engage in magical thinking and reject science.

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