SCIENCE

Can Exposure To Science Boost Morality? Maybe So, New Study Suggests

09/04/2013 08:40 am ET
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Does science make us better people?

That's the fascinating question explored by researchers in a new study. By looking at the way students reacted to scenarios involving moral questions, the study attempted to find a link between exposure to science and moral thinking.

Study authors Christine Ma-Kellams, a social psychologist at Harvard, and Jim Blascovich, a professor of social psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), noted that in the past, research has drawn connections between scientists and personal values. "Not surprisingly, the general consensus is that science is value-laden," they wrote.

In an email to The Huffington Post, Ma-Kellams said she was drawn to the subject in part because of the similarities she sees between science and religion.

"In many ways, science seems like a 21st Century religion," Ma-Kellams told HuffPost Science. "It's a belief system that many wholeheartedly defend and evolve their lives around, sometimes as much as the devoutest of religious folk. And although many have studied the link between religion and morality, few had tried empirically at least to test whether science also had moral repercussions."

To put her theories to the test, the researchers conducted four experiments. The first had 48 undergraduate students read a story about date rape, and then judge the actions of the accuser. Then the students were asked to rate on a one-to-seven scale how much they believed in science.

The researchers found that while there was no relationship between the students' religious affiliation and their answers, “those who reported greater belief in science rated the date rape as more wrong," according to the study.

The other three studies examined the way people enforced moral norms, attempted to make a positive difference in their communities, and interacted with strangers. Before each study, participants were asked to complete word scrambling puzzles -- some of which contained science-related words.

"Across studies, we found that believing in science and thinking about science led to more morally normative outcomes," Ma-Kellams told HuffPost Science.

Pacific Standard magazine reported that some people might initially be surprised by the study's results, given science's status as an essentially amoral subject.

But Ma-Kellams demurred.

"Many like to think of science as a neutral, purely objective force," she said. "But in reality, the things what we study and investigate and think about influence our very conceptions of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, without us necessarily realizing it."

The study stops short of concluding that merely thinking about science can make someone more moral. However, the researchers do think their findings indicate "that science has moral implications."

For more information, check out Ma-Kellams' and Blascovich's study, "Does 'Science” Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior," in the journal PLOS One.

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