Is Morality Determined by Its Popularity?

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“But everybody else is doing it!” Have you ever heard or made this argument? If “everybody else is doing it,” you should be allowed to do whatever “it” is too, right? A new study revealed that “our view of what is morally right or wrong is shaped by how widespread a particular behavior is.”1

Everybody’s Doing It

This new study from the Karolinska Institutet, a medical university in Sweden, found that participants’ view of “selfish and altruistic behaviors changes depending on how common they are.”

Here’s how they did the study: participants were given a sum of money. They could choose to invest it for the good of the group, or they could keep it for themselves. After each round of the game, participants judged the choices made as either morally right or wrong and determined whether certain decisions ought to be penalized in the form of a reduction in how much the players gained.

What the researchers discovered was that, unsurprisingly, people considered those who gave altruistically as more moral than those who selfishly kept everything to themselves. What surprised the researchers, however, was that, the more common the selfishness among the group, the more moral it was considered to be. If a majority were selfish with their money, the penalty was less severe than if a minority were selfish. Tolerance of selfishness increased when “everybody was doing it.”

This study has implications for how social norms change over time. People tend to adapt to the behaviors of those around them. If the social environment changes, the “moral compass” will often change along with it.

Group Dishonesty

Another study conducted in Germany found that being in a group can influence normally honest people to behave dishonestly, “especially when there is money at stake.”2 In this study, participants were shown a video of rolled dice and told to report the number on the dice. If the number they reported was a high number, they received more compensation.

When the participants worked in groups using a chat feature, the researchers found that over half of the chats contained discussions “explicitly advocating dishonest reporting. . . . Of all the messages that were sent between group members, 43% were arguing for dishonest behavior, while only around 16% called for honesty.” Dishonesty even occurred within groups of people who had been individually honest when they reported on their own.

An author of the study commented that,

We observed that groups lie significantly more than individuals when group members face mutual financial gain and have to coordinate an action in order to realise that financial gain.

Another author added,

The ability for group members to exchange and discuss potential justifications for their dishonest behaviour can create an overall shift in the group’s beliefs of what constitutes moral behaviour.

This German study adds to the findings of the Swedish study: if everybody else is doing it, it’s less immoral and more acceptable.

Morality by Popular Opinion?

The principal investigator for the Swedish study commented,

The fact that a behavior is common doesn’t automatically mean that it’s right—this idea is based on flawed logic that confuses facts with moral values.

This researcher is right: popularity doesn’t equal morality. Yet the idea that the majority determines what’s right and wrong, or that it’s up to the individual, permeates our society. In this view, there are no moral absolutes, just changing tides of public opinion. What’s right today might be wrong next year and vice versa. It leads to shifting sands and a world where everyone does what’s right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25) or in the eyes of others.

A More Sure Foundation

Opinions on morality change constantly, often depending on the situation or “what’s in it for me.” But, as believers, we have a firm, unchanging foundation for our morality. When we start with God’s Word, we aren’t prisoners to the changing tide of public opinion. We can stand our ground, knowing what is right and wrong. The principles in God’s Word are timeless and apply to all Christians, in all times, and can be used in all situations.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)

Footnotes

  1. Karolinska Institutet, Medical Xpress, September 12, 2017, “Behaviour Is Considered More Moral the More Common It Is,” https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-09-behaviour-moral-common.html.
  2. Aristos Georgiou, “Why Does Morality Go out of the Window When You're in a Group? Study Reveals All,” International Business Times, September 7, 2017, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/why-does-morality-go-out-window-when-youre-group-study-reveals-all-1638492.

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