If You Thought Your Morals Were Unshakeable, This Study Proves Otherwise

eye tracking

Is it ever OK to cheat on your spouse? Is murder ever justified?

You may think your decisions are based on unshakeable moral convictions — but your moral decisions may be simply a result of where you’re looking at a given moment.

According to a provocative new study, eye movements and visual input play a large role in how we deliberate about moral questions.

The new study — a collaboration between Swedish, British and American researchers — is the first to suggest that a person’s gaze is closely related to the way they make moral decisions, and therefore that a person’s immediate surroundings may exert a significant influence on complex ethical judgments.

Say, for example, you’ve recently decided to become a vegetarian because you believe it is immoral to eat meat. But when you’re out at a restaurant, you’re tempted to order your favorite meat dish. How do you decide what to order?

“If you’re wavering on this decision, something as subtle as the waiter walking up to the table at the moment that your eyes happened to be momentarily resting on the chicken cacciatore menu item (and not on the pasta primavera) could be what sways you into ordering a meal that conflicts with a moral belief you’ve embraced,” one of the study’s authors, University of California Merced psychologist Dr. Michael Spivey, told The Huffington Post in an email. “If that waiter had arrived half a second earlier or later, our vegetarian may have been fixating on the pasta at that moment and ordered it.”

But what about more weighty moral questions — like the ethics of murder or adultery? To test how a person’s gaze affects these kinds of decisions, the researchers tracked a group of study participants’ eyes as they pondered questions such as “Is murder sometimes justifiable?”

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