EVANSTON, Ill. — To many, New York Gov. Eliott Spitzer’s fall from grace seemed to make no sense at all. But a new Northwestern University study offers provocative insights that possibly could relate to why the storm trooper of reform — formerly known as the Sheriff of Wall Street — seemingly went from saint to sinner overnight.
The study suggests that people with ample moral self-worth in one aspect of their lives can slip into immorality or opposite behavior in other areas — their abundant self-esteem somehow pushing them to balance out all that goodness.
Think, for example, of that sugar- and fat-laden concoction that you wolf down after an especially vigorous run, said Douglas Medin, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. “That pretty much eliminates the benefits of running an extra 20 minutes,” he said.
Northwestern’s Sonya Sachdeva, Rumen Iliev and Medin are co-authors of “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation,” published by the journal Psychological Science.
Conversely, the study shows, people who engage in immoral behavior cleanse themselves with good work.
Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new Northwestern model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.
“If people feel too moral,” Sachdeva said, “they might not have sufficient incentive to engage in moral action because of the costliness of being good.”
An abundance of research shows that people are motivated both by the warm glow that results from good behavior and recognition of costly, long-term consequences of immoral behavior on kin and society at large.
But the Northwestern study for the first time shows that perhaps people whose glow is much warmer than average are more likely to regulate behavior by acting in an opposite manner or passing up opportunities to behave morally.
“Imagine a line on a plane,” Sachdeva said. “If you go above the line, you feel pressure to come back down. The only way you can come back down is either by refraining from good social behavior or by actively engaging in immoral behavior.”
“If you do extra good deeds, you’re motivated to come back down on that internal barometer,” Iliev added.
Based on three experiments, the study of how moral behavior is affected by internal self-regulation included 46 participants. For each experiment, participants were told that they were engaging in a handwriting test at Northwestern’s Center for Handwriting Analysis. They also were asked if they would like to donate up to $10 to a charity of their choice.
All experiments included a positive-traits and a negative-traits condition. In the positive-traits condition, participants copied words such as kind, caring, generous and honest. In the negative condition, they wrote down words such as selfish, dishonest and cruel. They were asked to think carefully about what each word meant to them before writing a self-relevant story involving the words. To provide a control condition, experiment one also included a neutral condition, providing words such as book, car and house.
In experiment one, participants who wrote a story referring to positive traits donated one-fifth as much money to a charity as those in the negative condition. Conversely, those whose stories encompassed negative traits acted more altruistically. In summary, they gave about $5 in the negative-traits condition, about $3 in the control condition and about $1 in the positive-traits condition.
In the only change in experiment two, participants were randomly assigned to use the words to write specifically about either themselves or someone close to them. (A fourth wrote positive stories about themselves; a fourth positive stories about others; a fourth negative stories about themselves; and a fourth negative stories about others.)
The researchers assumed correctly that changes in self-concept would occur when study subjects took a first-person, rather than a third-person, perspective. The moral-cleansing and moral-licensing effects occurred only when people were talking about themselves.
In the positive condition, those who wrote about themselves donated the least, while those who wrote about others showed opposite behavior. In contrast, those in the negative condition who wrote about themselves gave more than those who told an unflattering story about others.
The third experiment looked at environmental-related behaviors and included neutral, positive-traits and negative-traits conditions. Participants assumed roles of managers of manufacturing plants and had to make a decision about putting costly filters on their smokestacks.
All the managers in their field, they were told, had gotten together and decided to run the filters 60 percent of the time. So costs were higher for anyone who decided to run the filters more than 60 percent of the time.
People in the neutral condition ran their filters 60 to 65 percent of the time; those in the negative condition ran them 73 percent of the time; and those in the positive condition ran them 55 percent of the time.
The research draws on previous research on moral regulation. People who selected themselves as nonsexist in one study, for example, tended to choose a man for a job over a woman who was a little less qualified. “In that case, when they affirmed to themselves that they were nonsexist, they were more likely to attribute their decisions to external causes rather than to sexism.”
The Northwestern researchers stress cross-cultural differences in their model, suspecting, for example, if they ran tests in India, where people’s actions are more interdependent, the results would be different.
“Sonya and Rumen may have even more intriguing results in the future,” said Medin, the study’s senior researcher, “because they are examining whether the results generalize to different cultures.”
Meanwhile the Northwestern study provokes thinking about how the image of Spitzer, once a hard-hitting prosecutor who routinely brought down the high and mighty for their crooked ways, will be forever linked with a high-end prostitute.
Pastor David Jones and his wife Mary have been told that they cannot invite friends to their San Diego, Calif. home for a Bible study — unless they are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to San Diego County.
“On Good Friday we had an employee from San Diego County come to our house, and inform us that the Bible study that we were having was a religious assembly, and in violation of the code in the county.” David Jones told FOX News.
“We told them this is not really a religious assembly — this is just a Bible study with friends. We have a meal, we pray, that was all,” Jones said.
A few days later, the couple received a written warning that cited “unlawful use of land,” ordering them to either “stop religious assembly or apply for a major use permit,” the couple’s attorney Dean Broyles told San Diego news station 10News.
But the major use permit could cost the Jones’ thousands of dollars just to have a few friends over.
For David and Mary Jones, it’s about more than a question of money.
“The government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion,” Broyles told FOX News. “I believe that our Founding Fathers would roll over in their grave if they saw that here in the year 2009, a pastor and his wife are being told that they cannot hold a simple Bible study in their own home.”
“The implications are great because it’s not only us that’s involved,” Mary Jones said. “There are thousands and thousands of Bible studies that are held all across the country. What we’re interested in is setting a precedent here — before it goes any further — and that we have it settled for the future.”
The couple is planning to dispute the county’s order this week.
If San Diego County refuses to allow the pastor and his wife to continue gathering without acquiring a permit, they will consider a lawsuit in federal court.
In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task – a well-known test of cognitive control – while hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain activity.
Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, and the fewer errors they made.
“You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty,” says lead author Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.”
These correlations remained strong even after controlling for personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also found that religious participants made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts.
Their findings show religious belief has a calming effect on its devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making errors or facing the unknown. But Inzlicht cautions that anxiety is a “double-edged sword” which is at times necessary and helpful.
“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” he says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?”
The study is appearing online now in Psychological Science.
Source: University of Toronto
I’m not surprised in the least.
Professor Richard Lynn, emeritus professor of psychology at Ulster University, said many more members of the “intellectual elite” considered themselves atheists than the national average.
A decline in religious observance over the last century was directly linked to a rise in average intelligence, he claimed.
But the conclusions – in a paper for the academic journal Intelligence – have been branded “simplistic” by critics.
Professor Lynn, who has provoked controversy in the past with research linking intelligence to race and sex, said university academics were less likely to believe in God than almost anyone else.
A survey of Royal Society fellows found that only 3.3 per cent believed in God – at a time when 68.5 per cent of the general UK population described themselves as believers.
A separate poll in the 90s found only seven per cent of members of the American National Academy of Sciences believed in God.
Professor Lynn said most primary school children believed in God, but as they entered adolescence – and their intelligence increased – many started to have doubts.
He told Times Higher Education magazine: “Why should fewer academics believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population. Several Gallup poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs tend not to believe in God.”
He said religious belief had declined across 137 developed nations in the 20th century at the same time as people became more intelligent.
But Professor Gordon Lynch, director of the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society at Birkbeck College, London, said it failed to take account of a complex range of social, economic and historical factors.
“Linking religious belief and intelligence in this way could reflect a dangerous trend, developing a simplistic characterisation of religion as primitive, which – while we are trying to deal with very complex issues of religious and cultural pluralism – is perhaps not the most helpful response,” he said.
Dr Alistair McFadyen, senior lecturer in Christian theology at Leeds University, said the conclusion had “a slight tinge of Western cultural imperialism as well as an anti-religious sentiment”.
Dr David Hardman, principal lecturer in learning development at London Metropolitan University, said: “It is very difficult to conduct true experiments that would explicate a causal relationship between IQ and religious belief. Nonetheless, there is evidence from other domains that higher levels of intelligence are associated with a greater ability – or perhaps willingness – to question and overturn strongly felt institutions.”