Morality and German Car Experiment

We need laws because we accept that without them there are no effective guidelines on how we can live in social groups that grow above a certain size. Laws provide a uniform guideline of behavior which then forms the backdrop we use to gauge expectations and understand people whom we have never met before. This is the primary drive for creating that initial spark of knowledge-based trust which makes relational transactions possible.

Without trust our brains become engaged in an exhausting game of guesswork which then allows no room for further development, innovation or growth. Civilization breaks down and fear becomes the prevalent emotion. Fear, in turn, paralyses all the higher executive centers of the brain and turns decision making into a kneejerk reaction that’s driven by basic, survival instincts.

None of this spells anything good for the future of a world where complexity has become the norm and we are expected to be able to make better decisions in scenarios and situations we have never encountered before. To be fair, from a certain perspective, this is not new. We can argue that complexity and uncertainty have always been present. The past seems simple and definitive only in retrospect.

This is where morality comes in. As a set of principles or universally acceptable guidelines morality is supposed to fill in when the law is not there to do its thing. It too is designed to be a mechanism that allows us to navigate the uncertainty of the future and, like everything else about us, it starts in the brain.

Are We Moral or Are We Law Abiding?

The really interesting question when it comes to either morality or the law is not whether we are determined to follow their guidelines because they tell us how to live a good life or even whether we truly understand why they are both important in terms of the mental analysis our brain carries out. No, the defining question about who we truly are is just how law abiding or moral are we when there is no one looking?

This question has probably the most meaning in Germany which has a cultural tradition for rules and a strong sense of behavioral morality that is often manifested in economic behavior. It is further buttressed by law that makes it a legal requirement to act in a way that is morally right, like stopping to help someone who is in dire need of assistance.

To test whether people are willing to do the right thing German Police, with the assistance of a local media agency, set up a fake car crash that was graphic in its depiction of serious hurt caused to car occupants. They then sat back and watched to see how many people stopped to help.

The results are pretty dismal. Despite the law and despite Germany’s strong culture of morality only 10% of those who passed by stopped to assist what were people whose bloodied demeanor signaled that they, indeed, were in need of help. The Press Release about this (unfortunately in German) along with the video that shows how the stunt was staged show just how graphic the accident appeared to be which only makes people’s behavior appear all that more callous.

What Are We To Learn From This?

It is easy to moralize here. It is even easier to be judgmental and call Germans hypocrites. Both of these reactions would be wrong and they would actually gloss over the underlying complexity the experiment has revealed.

Morality and neuroscienceWe know that from a neuroscientific point of view the brain makes moral judgements (essentially choices and decisions) by using intuitive judgement (a.k.a. heuristics) as a starting point and then employing a series of cognitive mechanisms to support that choice. In this memory, awareness of social and cultural norms, education, experience, perception and mood play a role. Fundamentally so does context which has the ability to derail hypothetical value judgements and alter our behavioral outcome.

The obvious take away is that morality is hard to do when no one’s looking. So, apparently is being law abiding. The less obvious thing is that we live in a world where speed, complexity and uncertainty combine to challenge our decision making and make it more likely that we will do the wrong thing.

How do we deal with this? It would appear there is no real substitute for training ourselves to use our brains better. When untrained reflex action is likely to lead us down the wrong path the only other avenue left to us is to train ourselves and develop new reflexes.

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