MU researchers conducted a series of studies to measure how people use intuition to determine scenarios as morally wrong

“I was just really curious about individual differences and how people react to these things and the reasons that that happens,” Sarah Ward said.
Sarah Ward Courtesy of MU News Bureau

A woman finds an old American flag in her apartment and decides to use it to clean. A man finds an old sweater is his closet that he bought as a gift for his ex-girlfriend; he decides to give it to his new girlfriend as a gift. Are these scenarios morally right or wrong?

Sarah Ward, a doctoral candidate in social-personality psychology, and psychology professor Laura King had participants tackle these types of moral decisions in their recent study.

Their paper,“Individual Differences in Reliance on Intuition Predict Harsher Moral Judgments,” demonstrates how people come to moral judgments in situations that seem morally wrong to many people.

They presented similar situations to over 1,000 people starting in 2013. In the scenario with the American flag, many people judged this to be morally wrong even after hearing the woman’s reasoning.

“It’s a really fun topic,” Ward said. “People make these judgments all the time, not just in the moral context we’re studying, but people are always trying to judge other people and trying to make sense of the social world. The moral judgments are a really fun way to look at that.”

Ward found that participants who strongly trust their gut instincts are more likely than others to make quick judgments about whether something is morally right or wrong, and they are unlikely to change their mind on an issue even after thorough reasoning.

Ward and King conducted a total of five studies, three correlational and two experimental. The first four studies were online surveys, while the last study was conducted in person with MU students.

“We either want them to think in a lot of depth and reason about [the presented scenario] a lot before making their decision or in the final study we had them make snap judgments, two-second decisions,” Ward said. “We were kind of just varying that.”

Each study had 200 to 300 participants. The online studies were completed by a diverse group of adults with an average age of 30.

Ward initially measured the intuition of participants by having them either agree or disagree with statements.

The statements ranged from “I trust my intuition” to “I rely on my gut instinct.”

“We’re looking at all the variability and how people judge those kinds of situations,” Ward said.

Ward said she saw her research as a way to fill the gap of understanding about how people arrive at their moral judgments in psychology, since most previous studies did not consider the role of individual differences in trusting one's intuition.

“I was just really curious about individual differences and how people react to these things and the reasons that that happens,” Ward said. “[Other psychologists] don’t look at too many individual differences. In the field of psychology in moral judgments, they’re often looking for broad conclusions they can reach.”

Ward hopes to continue to expand on her latest research and see how intuition affects other parts of social life.

“It hasn’t been looked at a ton in relation to social relationships, but that seems like the clear next step,” Ward said.

Ward and King’s paper can be found in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Edited by Olivia Garrett |

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