Huh. Who knew???
Following your gut instincts can come in handy, especially in situations where you have to make split-second decisions, like when you're driving or forming an opinion of someone you've just met. These same instincts can also get you into trouble, like when people tell you it's OK to eat all the ice cream.
But how does instinct or intuition work when it comes to making moral decisions?
One study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that people who usually trust their gut instincts may be less likely to commit immoral acts. Findings also suggest that people who listen to their inner voice or intuition are less likely to cheat or steal after thinking back on previous experiences where they acted badly.
Sarah J. Ward, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, worked with her psychology professor Laura A. King to discover what the benefits of being inclined to following one's intuition were. Intuition is a process that gives up the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reasoning.
Intuition is listening to your inner voice or trusting the feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you something is a bad idea.
"Some people trust their gut feelings when making decisions, whereas other people are less reliant on them and don't pay much heed to gut feelings even if they do experience them," Ward said. "We were interested in studying how individual differences in intuition affect moral behavior and other relevant outcomes."
Ward conducted two experiments to determine if reliance on intuitive processing influences moral behavior when people experience internally generated, morally-relevant feelings. The first experiment included 100 participants (75 of which were women) answering a series of questionnaires to see if they had a tendency to follow their intuition or not.
The participants were then asked to imagine that they had acted immorally in a workplace setting; subjects each read a story about how they had screwed up at work but put the blame on a coworker. Participants in the control group read the same story, but instead of blaming someone else they took responsibility for the mistake.
Ward had anticipated that the manipulation involving thinking about an immoral action might bring out self-conscious moral emotions, such as shame or guilt, which previous research has shown can cause people to feel dirty or as if they've been contaminated. Based on this, Ward predicted that the subjects who imagine that they had done something immoral would be willing to spend more money for hand-cleaning products.
"If you feel badly about a moral transgression, you might want to cleanse yourself," Ward said. "Our study found that participants who were more reliant on intuition were willing to pay more for hand sanitizer after reading about a moral transgression."
In the second experiment, subjects were asked to write about a time when they acted immorally and were then asked to take an impossible-to-solve IQ test. Ward wanted to see if more intuitive people would subsequently cheat less on an unsolvable IQ test.
The participants were given the fake 10 question test and a paper with the answers on it. The answers were placed face down on the desks, and the study subjects were told that they would be using the answers to grade their own test when they had finished. Then the participants were told that the top 10 percent would get a lottery ticket — an incentive to cheat. The results of the experiment showed that up to 23 percent cheated on the test.
"Our second experiment showed that people who tend to rely on their gut feelings are less likely to cheat after reflecting on a time when they behaved immorally," Ward said. "We feel this is because people try to compensate for past bad behavior by acting morally in the present and that this tendency to try to compensate for past actions may be especially pronounced among people who rely on intuition."
So the next time you're about to make a morally relevant decision, like stealing office supplies or cheating with a neighbor, listen to your intuition and think about to how you felt when you behaved badly before. It could stop you from making a major mistake, or worse.