The Roots of Morality and Altruism: Theories from Social Psychology

25 February 2021


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

"Why are we so polarized? Why can't people agree?"

In the autumn of 2020, Dr Simone Schnall, a Reader in Experimental Social Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the Cambridge Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory, was joined by members of the Horn Fellowship Programme for a discussion exploring the psychological foundations of morality and altruism. Noting that we live in a polarized world, Dr Schnall's work in social psychology has explored the unconscious factors which influence our moral compasses, and which may shine a light on one of the factors underlying polarization.

Researchers have suggested that people have moral foundations that we do not fully understand and which we are often not fully aware of - the so-called 'hidden roots' of morality. Morality is heavily reliant on intuition, including gut feelings of disgust. Experiments which have placed subjects in disgusting environments, with repulsive smells for example, have found that the triggering of disgust makes subjects more negatively judgmental. Researchers have noted that when it comes to morality, we often rely on intuition, including gut feelings of disgust. Bodily sensations of repulsion can be relevant in the moral domain, and Dr Schnall has argued that this is proof of principle. She suggests that morality is not about rationally weighing arguments or just looking at the pros and cons. Rather, there is a very strong emotional aspect to it. Moreover, this physical sense of repulsion can be linked the idea that there is a natural order which should not be interfered with - a factor which can underlie the sense that something is wrong if it involves humans 'playing God' or altering nature. "When it comes to morality, deciding whether something is right or wrong, we are influenced to a large extent by how we feel, rather than by objective facts," says Dr Schnall.

This intuitive feeling of revulsion is only one aspect of our underlying moral compass, with Dr Schnall suggesting that we have additional moral institutions related to ideas such as loyalty, and a sense of fairness. Here, she suggests that people who are relatively politically liberal place more emphasis in their moral foundations on avoiding harm and fairness. However, people who are more conservative are more focused on variables such as loyalty to one's ingroup, authority towards people of a certain social standing, and the idea of purity.

The key finding that people differ in how they use moral foundations gives us insight into how difficult it can be for those who are on one or the other to appreciate just how different other people are. Based on this, some have emphasized the need for people to actively seek to understand that others may have a different moral compass and understand their experiences differently, while highlighting our common humanity.

What can this understanding of factors influencing our moral foundations tell us about how our societies can foster altruism?

Our moral foundations are closely related to our social relationships and how we present ourselves in everyday life. We find it valuable to have a certain role within our societies, a social status, and that is closely related to how we put ourselves on display for others. Dr Schnall has noted that you can put a price tag on that - demonstrated by the shrinking of GDP during lockdowns in the UK when people were told to stay home and stop partaking in social experiences. A lot of the things we spend money on are about other people, and social status is one of them. However, she argues that what this means - especially in a circumstance like the pandemic - is that concerns about social status can bring out the best in people. People engage in altruistic behaviour when they are inspired by others. People look for heroes and moral role models, and if we do not see them in politicians or figures in the public domain, we look for them elsewhere. Here, she suggested that Captain Tom Moore's fundraiser for the NHS and Greta Thunberg's successes in galvanizing a generation to worry about climate change, are perfect examples of how individuals can bring out the best in people by getting them emotionally engaged. When we see people do good things, we also want to do good things, and Dr Schnall believes that gives a lot of hope in terms of what we can do with these moral foundations, and how they are valuable. Dr Schnall suggests that honesty, fairness, good citizenship, looking out for the environment and future generations are things that people, and businesses, should consider not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is good for us and good for business. People have an inherent interest in doing good, and that is something that can be harnessed if we pay attention to people's moral foundations.