Moral illusions may alter our behavior

Just as optical illusions can fool the eye to present a distorted image of reality, moral illusions can fool our decision-making ability, making us more selfish. This is the conclusion of a newly presented doctoral thesis from Linköping University. But the results also show that we are more likely to vote for the good of all when taking part in democratic decisions.

“We tend to use what we can call a ‘moral wiggle room’ to justify selfish decisions. This means that we can act selfishly in certain situations, without feeling that our actions are morally wrong,” says Kajsa Hansson, newly promoted doctor in economics at Linköping University, with a thesis entitled Moral Illusions.

In the thesis, she examines several aspects of what she terms ‘moral illusions’, and compares them to optical illusions. She concludes that we can tweak our morals in some situations to increase self-benefit.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder. But I have used a broad definition of morality, and I don’t judge whether a certain type of fairness is good or bad. Instead, I use the idea of whether a person experiences that they are not living up to their own notion of good morality,” says Kajsa Hansson.

Moral illusions mainly arise in competitive situations when many people compete for the same rewards. This is a consequence of psychological mechanisms that cause us to assess fairness differently, depending on whether we are successful or not. This is particularly the case when we lack information about the fairness of the situation. When the brain attempts to fill in missing information, it may create an image that does not match reality — in the same way as occurs for an optical illusion.

One example is how we view losing. If we lose, we tend to blame it on that the playing field was not level, or that the game was rigged. When we win, in contrast, we explain this by our excellent playing skills. This tendency may describe why successful people believe that the world is a meritocracy, and that economic inequalities are thus fair.

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