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'Moral illusions' can affect decision-making abilities, cause 'selfishness': study

Published Sep 15, 2022 9:22 am

"Moral illusions"—just as optical illusions can deceive sight and present a distorted representation of reality—can deceive decision-making abilities and cause people to become more selfish, according to a doctoral thesis recently given at Linkoping University in Sweden.

"We tend to use what we can call a 'moral wiggle room' to justify selfish decisions," writes Kajsa Hansson, newly promoted doctor in economics, in her study Moral Illusions.

In her study, Hansson didn't use any specific theory of morality, saying she doesn't judge whether a certain type of fairness is good or bad. Instead, she used a "broad definition," as well as the idea of whether a person experiences that they are not living up to their own notion of good.

Moral illusions, according to Hansson, mainly arise in competitive situations when many people compete for the same rewards. She said people can tweak their morals in some situations to increase self-benefit.

Whether people are successful or not, she said, moral illusions are a consequence of psychological mechanisms that cause them to view fairness differently. In situations when people lack information about the situation, Hansson said the brain may create an image that doesn't match reality—akin to an optical illusion.

She cited losing in games as an example, noting people tend to blame the playing field not being level or claiming the game was rigged.

But when people win, Hanssen said, people would normally attribute it to their "excellent" playing skills.

Such scenario, she argued, describes why successful people believe that the world is a meritocracy and that economic inequalities are fair.

Hansson also found that people tend to avoid information that may encourage unselfish behavior, tweaking morality anew.

No moral illusions in democratic decisions

But Hansson found that moral illusions do not play a role when decisions are taken democratically, like in the national parliament or committees of clubs and companies.

Hansson said that when people participate in democratic processes, they're more likely to vote for the good of everybody.

It's in contrast to the popular theory of "diffusion of responsibility," which argues that people become less moral when the responsibility for a decision is shared among several others.

"When decisions are taken democratically, there is always someone else we can blame, and previous studies have shown that we become more selfish when the responsibility for a decision is spread among several people," Hansson writes.

"However, our results do not support the idea that people become less moral when taking such decisions."

In her study, Hansson surveyed participants—in collective and individual capacities—on whether they'll donate or claim money. She found that people tend to become more generous, and that there's no room for selfish behavior.

"[W]e possess the insight that we take decisions for others, and we act collectively," Hansson writes. "We can speculate that people realize that we can contribute more to the common good when everyone contributes."

Hansson believes her study can help people understand each other better.

"We may not always agree with everyone's interpretations of reality," she said, "but we can understand where they come from." (ANI)

(Editor's note: Minor changes were made in this republished article.)