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Studies show our moral approach stays consistent

During the recent Republican presidential debate in Detroit, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly played a series of video clips to demonstrate Donald Trump flip-flopping on foreign policy issues. A few days later, Trump tweeted a link to a news story accusing one of his rivals, Texas senator Ted Cruz, of the same thing.

We criticize politicians for changing their opinions, but are such changes common, and do they point to a flaw in moral character? Is a person likely to be noble one moment and corrupt the next?

On a daily basis, most of us are consistently true to our moral colors — good or bad — according to two new studies of morality.


“If someone is kind at one point, it’s very likely they will be kind at another point. Or if they’re critical or pessimistic, those behaviors are likely to continue,” said Kathryn Bollich, first author on the studies and a graduate student in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

In one study, which will be published next month in the Journal of Research in Personality, Bollich and colleagues invited 186 adults to wear a small digital recorder for two weekends. The devices intermittently recorded 30-second snippets of conversation, which the team rated for moral or immoral behaviors.

For example, “Can I carry that for you?” was rated as evidence of offering help or support. “Then get off your butt and fix them lunch” was cited as evidence of criticism. Other traits that were evaluated included showing sympathy, hope, sarcasm, and pessimism.

The team found that individuals had a reliable pattern of moral behavior from one weekend to the next. For example, 10 students failed to criticize anyone over the course of the four-day study and 16 never expressed gratitude. The study was not, however, able to ascertain the speaker’s intentions or the consequences of their behaviors.


In a second study, published in January in the multidisciplinary journal PLoS One, the team analyzed data from hundreds of Harvard students in the 1960s who responded to questionnaires during their freshman and senior years of college. The survey asked students to make decisions about 16 hypothetical scenarios pitting social responsibility against allegiance to one’s peers, such as writing a positive review for a friend whose play is not actually good. Bollich’s PhD adviser, Joshua Jackson, found the data and realized it might provide insight on how moral choices change over years.

After four years of college — when young adults begin redefining themselves and change personality — the students’ approach to moral decision-making remained mostly stable, the authors found.

While Bollich is hesitant to comment on how this applies to the moral characters of presidential candidates, she did note that one result of the second study could relate to politics: After four years in college, students were more likely to help out friends — even when doing so required breaking an ethical boundary.

“As a 10th-year member of Congress versus a first-year member of Congress, would you be more likely to side with your friends rather than follow an ethical principle? Maybe.”