Monday, September 18, 2006

Framing Effects in the Universal Moral Language

I have posted earlier about the similarities between the Universal Grammar concept associated with languages and the Universal Moral Grammar that Hauser has proposed. To take the analogy further, just as linguistic framing of a issue leads to different interpretations and effects in the person exposed to a sentence or a phrase or a discourse, so too it is apparent that when a moral dilemma is posed under different contextual situations or framed differently then they led to different appraisals by the same subject.

To begin with, one may note that Mixing Memory writes about the concept of personal and impersonal violations, as outlined by Greene et al, and associates them with the famous Moral Dilemma of one versus five lives on a railway track in two different conditions - the Footbridge and the Trolley. To explain the differences in responses of the people to the differing moral dilemma in the two conditions, the concept of impersonal and personal violations is introduced and it is posited that these involve different reactions in the brain - one utilizing the emotional brain, and the other a rational brain. However, I have elsewhere provided a more parsimonious explanation utilizing the stages of moral development that people are on and how that may lead to different outcomes for the same moral problem in the two conditions. Specifically those at stage 3 of good interpersonal relationship would differ in how they respond to the two dilemmas.

More relevant to our discussion here, is that the same effects could be explained by the differing framing of the Moral dilemma. In effect, the footbridge dilemma is framed in such a way as to activate the action predicate processing in a different way from the impersonal trolley condition. In the footbridge case, the action predicate is of an action involving two human beings- the action is deliberate pushing of another person- and hence of more negative connotation- than the corresponding impersonal action involving acting on an inanimate object- viz. pushing the trolley. Thus, when Action Predicate also becomes a significant player in the Moral Dilemma, then though the intention and consequence predicate may remain the same, it may lead to different evaluations of the Moral Sentence.

Second, one needs to pay attention to the effect of emotions that has been observed in the footbridge dilemma, as observed by Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSterno. They report that under positive affect, people are more apt to choose the more 'rational' utilitarian alternative of pushing the person down the footbridge. This clearly is due to different framing conditions. A big part of the Moral Language is definitely made up of affects as they often provide a reliable guide to instinctive moral behavior. Thus, b putting the subjects under positive affect may be tantamount to the same framing effects that are observed when concepts like Tax opposition are associated with happy sounding words like relief and thus frame the issue of taxation differently. By a similar sleight of hand, as humans do tend to associate happiness and 'happiness for largest number of people' in their mind, so the utilitarian ethic may dominate when the context surrounding the moral dilemma is of 'happiness' or positive affect. It remains to be seen, if arousing negative or other affects in the subjects lead to a decline in the utilitarian response.
Anyway, the results as they stand today, do not corroborate the Impersonal/Personal violation theory and the corresponding rational/emotional brain theory, because the results clearly show that the differential response when in positive affect footbridge condition is due to the different emotional significance attached to the dilemma in happy affect vs. neutral affect situations. If anything, in the happy affect situation, the affective influence in decision making was greater (as baseline emotional activity was greater), than in the control condition. To prove that rational decision making was strengthened in presence of positive affect, one would need to show a general increase in rational decision making when under positive affect, or if not, at least by taking MRI scan of these happy affect decision makers, show that rational brain centers were more engaged than emotional centers while making the happy-affect-utilitarian decision..

Till then, we have plenty of evidence supporting the other hypothesis that positive affect improves moral reasoning as positive affect may be an internal guide used for guiding moral action - if something feels good, then it perhaps is good. Case in point is studies that have earlier demonstrated that if a graduate student is in positive affect, then he/she is more likely to help strangers-- for example by picking up dropped books. Thus, positive affect may be intrinsically linked to more altruistic/ moralistic actions and framing a dilemma, such that it arouses positive or negative affect in the subject, may alter the way the dilemma is perceived and resolved by the subject.

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