New research explores ethics, morality of conformity, empathy and mind control

The Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making (MADLAB) program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics has a part in three recently published studies analyzing aspects of empathy, conformity and mind control.

Led by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, research has been published in the journals Social Influence, Cognition and Nature Human Behavior. Sinnott-Armstrong is a co-author for all three studies.

“Morality is an extremely complex topic, so you can’t look at it from just one perspective,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “The goal of MADLAB is to look at morality and ethics from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives, which is illustrated by this recent collection of studies.”

In addition to providing new insight and research in areas of ethics, morality and science, the work of Sinnott-Armstrong and others will also help lead to philosophical papers about how these findings are relevant to broader ethical issues.

Shaping Moral Judgments Online

Included in Social Influence, Sinnott-Armstrong was part of a team to publish the study “Moral conformity in online interactions: rational justifications increase influence of peer opinions on moral judgments,” which shows how social media can shape moral judgments, noting that rational arguments can be more effective at eliciting conformity than emotional ones. Sinnott-Armstrong worked with Scott Huettel, Duke’s Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor, Duke associate in research Vlad Chituc, and Duke students Meagan Kelly and Lawrence Ngo.

The two-part study first analyzed the use of impersonal statistics such as anonymous “likes” on news stories, which showed that participants would conform to moral attitudes of others when presented with statistical information about how others respond. A second study used carefully phrased descriptions that positioned an action in a positive or negative light through emotional and rational arguments. Both cases showed how a person’s point of view might change through subtle manipulation of online interactions.

“Though it is reasonable to predict that the influence we have on each other’s opinions would be greatly diminished in this detached world,” the authors wrote, “it appears that the power of social influence is retained.”

Implicit Morality

Led by former MADLAB member Daryl Cameron, now director of the Empathy and Moral Psychology Laboratory and an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University, “Implicit moral evaluations: A multinomial modeling approach” shares insight on how new tests and mathematical models can help capture and quantify implicit moral and empathetic judgments. Research was funded by an incubator award from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and findings were published in Cognition.

Sinnott-Armstrong, who helped design studies and edit findings for publication, said greater understanding of human selfishness and lack of concern for others can assist in explaining how to better teach morality. As part of the study, a test was created in which two words were quickly shown in succession – a mixture of morally wrong terms, like “stealing,” and neutral, such as “whistling.” Researchers found a morally wrong phrase that precedes a neutral one can impact a person’s interpretation of the neutral word.

“It shows part of what limits people from being too selfish, harmful, and destructive,” Sinnott-Armstrong explained. “There might be some people who act selfishly because they lack empathy, and others who act selfishly because they lack morality. Understanding the sources of those behaviors can help us figure out how to prevent or treat extreme selfishness.”

Ethics of Mind Control

Sinnott-Armstrong is among an interdisciplinary group of researchers from Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and American University that are calling for new safeguards to guide treatments and protect patients during interventions for mental illnesses and neurological disorders.

In a perspective article published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, “Mind control as a guide for the mind” argues that these interventions should now be thought of as a form of “mind control.” As such, neuroscientists, clinicians and bioethicists should begin looking toward the engineering discipline of control theory as a way to better understand the relationship between brain physiology and mental states. The work began as discussions at Duke’s Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy, co-directed by Sinnott-Armstrong and Felipe De Brigard, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

“We need to think hard about the ensuing ethical issues regarding autonomy, privacy, equality, and enhancement,” Sinnott-Armstrong said.

Read more about the research in this story.