FRIDAY, March 11, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- People would prefer to allow bad things to happen rather than cause them, especially if they know others are watching, says a new study.
This is because people know others are more likely to think badly of them if they do something wrong rather than if they simply let it happen, according to the research in the journal Psychological Science.
"Omissions and commissions (of sin) come up relatively frequently in everyday life, and we sometimes puzzle over them," Peter DeScioli, a moral psychologist at Brandeis University, said in a journal news release. "If a cashier gives you an extra $20 bill at the register, some people think it's okay to keep the money, but many of those people would never just swipe the $20 if the cashier wasn't looking."
It's long been believed that this is because the brain makes different moral calculations when processing sins of omission (not giving the $20 back) and sins of commission (stealing a $20 bill).
But in an experiment involving money, DeScioli and his colleagues found that people actually tend to make these types of moral decisions based on how others might judge them.
The researchers recruited subjects through Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk website, which pays people small amounts of money to do something. People could either take 90 cents of a dollar away from an owner or let a 15-second timer run out, after which the whole dollar was taken away from the owner, a 15-cent penalty was taken out, and the rest (85 cents) was given to the taker. Sometimes a third person was allowed to judge the taker's actions and take money away from them for acting wrongly.
When the participants knew someone was there to judge them, 51 percent of them let the timer run out (even though this was worse for everyone financially). The percentage was significantly greater than those who let the timer run out when there was no outside person to judge them.
And the participants were correct in their prediction: the third person did judge them more harshly if they "stole" the 90 cents, leaving the owner with 10 cents, rather than if they let the timer run out and the owner was left with nothing.
This type of research will help psychologists learn more about the relationship between moral decisions people make on their own (conscience) and decisions influenced by negative judgments by others (condemnation), DeScioli said.
For more on moral education, visit the University of Illinois at Chicago.