Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sacred Values as Heuristics

Can being faced with a decision involving morals be a good thing? Research has shown in the past that morally-laden decisions are perceived as difficult and unpleasant. Therefore, conventional wisdom suggests that people would react characteristically when faced with decision-making with moral considerations, such as avoiding being placed in a position to make moral decisions, or effortfully spending more time deliberating over difficult moral decisions.

However, perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye, and Hanselmann and Tanner from the University of Zurich think so. In a very concise study, Hanselmann and Tanner (2008) sought to show that the involvement of moral issues and values can, instead, actually facilitate our decision-making. By invoking what are known as sacred values (absolute and inviolable values), we may end up spending less time thinking about the dilemma simply because an option that has sacred value makes us think that it cannot be compromised.

Every dilemma or decision involves some extent of trade-off. The authors conceptualized three types of trade-offs for the study:

Taboo trade-off
a situation that pits a secular value (i.e. a value that does not hold moral worth) against a sacred value

Tragic trade-off
a situation that pits two sacred values against each other

Routine trade-off
a situation that pits two secular values against each other

One might thus think of a routine trade-off in the case of a typical job dilemma. Faced with employment in Company A vs Company B, one might consider trading off mundane items such as salary, distance or working environment. On the other hand, an extreme (though commonplace) example of a tragic trade-off would be to decide whether to save one's parent or an offspring instead in the event of a fire.

In the first experiment, 84 students from the University of Zurich were presented with three scenarios representing a taboo, tragic or routine trade-off. Each scenario provided a choice between two options. An example of a taboo trade-off scenario was as follows:

Imagine that you are the president of the local authority of a village that has been severely affected by a flood. The local authority is discussing whether to invest a considerable amount of the annual budget in improved flood protection measures. In this case, however, the village would have to forego a planned facelift for the village square. As president, you have to decide between the improvements in flood protection (option 1) and the facelift for the village square (option 2).

Participants were then asked to rate how they felt about the decision, such as how emotionally negative the decision was and how difficult it was to decide on an option. The following results were gathered:

As can be seen, the difficulty of decision-making was lowest when sacred values were pitted against secular values, showing that, although decision-making involving some degree of moral choice is still emotionally unpleasant, it can lead to easier decision-making. A second experiment, which was a more complex (with multiple traits to access decision difficulty and affectiveness) but fundamentally similar experiment, was conducted and the results were replicated.

Tetlock (2003) had assumed that the mere contemplation of trade-offs that involve sacred values elicits distress and disturbance. There could very well be an adaptive or functional purpose to our negative perception of moral choices which makes us acutely aware that compromising on sacred values can have adverse consequences. In a sense, we are psychologically 'punished' for even contemplating the trade-off of sacred values, so let alone act against our instinct to preserve sacred values. These findings thus suggest that reliance on sacred values may therefore work as a heuristic that we use to increase the efficiency of our decision-making.

ResearchBlogging.orgMartin Hanselmann, & Carmen Tanner (2008). Taboos and conflicts in decision making: Sacred values, decision difficulty, and emotions Judgment and Decision Making, 3 (1)

Tetlock, P. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (7), 320-324 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00135-9

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