How personal values matter when making choices

Making a moral decision isn't just based on emotion or logic, says a new study from UNC-Wilmington. Your values play a key role.

Your day is full of choices

WILMINGTON — Take a minute to think about everything you do in a day. Once you wake up, you need to decide what to wear to work; what to have for breakfast; whether to have juice, coffee or both; which route to take to get to work, school or running errands; which errands to run. And the list goes on.

It’s not difficult to believe that researchers say, on average, we make about 35,000 decisions per day. But those decisions are either/or decisions, which means a person is deciding between two choices of roughly equal value. The decisions are not what psychologists call moral decisions.

“A moral decision is any decision that involves right and wrong,” explains Dale Cohen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at UNC-Wilmington. “So a moral dilemma is any situation that makes you make one of those decisions.”

Which choices involve morality?

We make a lot fewer moral decisions in our daily lives than those either/or decisions. But it turns out we treat both types of decisions pretty much the same. Shopping is a good example. Most of the time while walking through a store you don’t think about the fact we are not going to steal something. But in reality if you walk by a display of something and you don’t steal it, you’re making a moral decision.

Whether or not people think about them all of the time, society has a real investment in moral decisions. “It’s important what people are making those decisions based on, how those decisions are made and perhaps what those outcomes might be,” says Cohen.

Imagine this moral dilemma...

Cohen proposes this moral dilemma, which requires that a moral decision be made. Imagine yourself talking to a person in a boat, in a small, calm cove, which sits just beside the crest of a waterfall. Suddenly, you look up and spot a raft coming down the river towards the waterfall drop. The raft is out of control and five people are in the raft.

If you do nothing, those five people in the raft will go over the waterfall and die. Or you can push the single person in the raft out of the cove so there is room for the raft with five people to come in. However that means the single person will go over the waterfall and die. Cohen says whenever he proposes the scenario to study groups, about half of the people choose to save one person while the other half of the group chooses to save the five people.

Until now, psychologists believed the moral decisions we make every day were based on either rational thinking, such as five is greater than one, or emotion. Is it possible to send one person to die who you have gotten to know? Those choices battled it out until a decision was made.

Your values make a difference

Professor Cohen proposes a new theory. He believes moral decisions are based on values.

“What’s important to remember here is that this value is based on our own personal experience, not what’s good for the world,” says Cohen. “Although what’s good for the world might be one of the things you value, but really it resides on what’s good for us.”

All of your life experiences help to create your values. And Cohen adds that the closer the choices align to a person’s values, the more difficult the decision becomes.

Testing the theory

UNC-TV Science's Frank Graff went to downtown Durham and posed the waterfall scenario to several dozen random people. As Cohen said, when respondents had no connection to anyone in the boat, about half chose to save one person while the other half chose to save the five people in the boat.

But I found the more people had a connection to someone in the boat, such as a family member or a friend, or simply had been talking to the person, the choice was much more difficult.

“I would definitely save the one person because you’ve already saved that person,” said one participant. “I’m gonna go with this guy because you’ve already saved him and if you try for the rest you might not save anybody,” said another.

And even though she didn’t realize it, this person said it best. “The utilitarian response would be to save as many people as possible, but honestly, if I’ve already go through something with someone I would not be able to send them away for the somewhat abstract version of saving more people,” she explained.

Often moral choices are picked randomly

Cohen developed a list of 40 questions to assess a person’s values. From that, he says he is able to predict the moral decision a person will make. Cohen says his research shows it takes a long time to make a choice between two things that are valued very highly. In fact, even though the choices are highly valued, the decision is so close it's almost random.

“It’s like Sophie’s choice,” Cohen explains. “An incredibly hard decision, two highly valued things and you have to choose between them.” “But the interesting thing is that the same thing happens with two low value decisions,” explains Cohen.

"The items don’t have a high value; you don’t care what you choose but you still have a hard time choosing because they are valued about the same so you’re not sure which one you should save.” Cohen explains the irony.

“You might feel like you are making a non-random choice because you sit there and you think and think about it, but in the end it’s almost random," says Cohen. “But really the outcome isn’t going to make a difference because you highly value both, so you will feel good about one and bad about the other.”

Cohen says in light of his research, he tells his friends that if they have a really difficult decision over which they are straining and deliberating a lot, to just relax and make a choice.


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