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Could That Cleavage Be Dictating Your Conscience?

03/25/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

The next time you begin to construct a well-reasoned response to a thorny ethical question, take a second and switch tracks. Instead, think visuals. That is what many of us will take away from a recent study -- published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- which is the first to indicate that our optic movements can drive our decisions on the most fundamental moral questions, even the justifiability of murder.

"What we find in this study is that the precise timing of our decisions can be a powerful influence on the choices that we end up making," said Lund Professor Philip Pärnamets. "The process of arriving at a moral decision is not only reflected in people's eye gaze, but can also be determined by it." In other words, the study found that if we are called upon to make a decision, even a weighty moral one, we could be influenced significantly by whatever image we last looked at.

At first glance, this is sobering and depressing news for everybody who would like to believe in the reliability of our bedrock principles. It is especially unwelcomed for folks who make their living writing and editing. Clearly, we don't have the optic advantage. Our 2-cent words and perspired persuasion can go only so far when up against the commanding visual interplay of television news. Indeed, these findings seem to explain a lot.

What happens to our brains when we hear a news report laden with a moral subtext, such as one addressing U.S. military action abroad? What happens to us when we hear the same report, delivered by an attractive, female newscaster offering some optically impressive, gravity-defying cleavage? Surely, the eyeful of cleavage gets our attention. But could it also alter our ethical calculus? Apparently, it might if we are called upon to make a values-based decision while our eyes take in the evocative image. This study doesn't address that specific scenario, but the findings on the timing of moral decision-making and optic movements should be considered in terms of news delivery, especially in the context of suggestive news anchors and personalities.

Indeed, eye gaze and moral decision-making seems to conjure FOX News. Not to pick on FOX unfairly, but that media juggernaut was the first out of the gate to trot out newscasters dressed in what would-otherwise-pass-for their clubbing clothes. That phenomenon, coupled with FOX's vertiginous cultural impact, seems to dovetail with the results of the study. What's more, the FOX News perspective (yes, it does have one) is so difficult to counter with language alone. Indeed, FOX's cultural penetration and pervasiveness seems rooted in something else. Perhaps this study begins to allude to what that else might be.

Those of us who find ourselves disagreeing with this or that FOX view should buck up and think optics. Perhaps it's not what we are failing to say. Maybe we don't have to find more facts or turn our phrases better. It's not what we are or aren't saying that's the problem, but rather what we're not showing.

This is not to suggest that a well-reasoned column on U.S. foreign policy should be paired, with, say, a photo of Kim Kardashian's bare, shellacked bottom. We should not be trying to outfox FOX. But we have long known that images are powerful. We can find some that are moving and relevant. Perhaps we should write more stories around an arresting image that tells a story in and of itself, rather than trying to, as an afterthought, scramble to find some image, any image, to complement pieces and articles -- as I have been guilty of, time and time again. Also, should we ask more questions of our readers, rather than just telling? If a reader is asked more questions while reading, would the issues we bring up be considered on a deeper, intuitive level?

The aforementioned study, which was the result of a collaboration between Swedish, British and American researchers, found that, for example, participants who focused on the word "yes" on their screen right before they were asked to give their decision on whether murder was sometimes justifiable were 8 percent more likely to decide that it was. That finding is deeply unsettling. But images can also be harnessed to send positive messages and engender greater sympathy and solidarity for, say, the people who suffer the repercussions of U.S. military action abroad.

If we see the victims, would we be better understand the human toll? And what if those victims became visible at the same time we asked readers to think about them, specifically? What then? And if we understand, person by person, those consequences, would we then grasp the blowback of conflict on a national or even regional basis?

In looking for more images that tell a story we may find ourselves forced to dig deeper and our writing may get better, too. It may also make news and opinion writing more fulfilling and representative. After all, what haven't we said already?