Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Limits of Moral Math

One concept I come back to regular is moral math. The idea that we are constantly calculating how good/bad we can/should be. Perhaps there are limits to how much we are willing to sacrifice to feel moral. Here's an environmental example:
For those students for whom the environment was not important to their self-esteem, receiving negative feedback on the ecological footprint questionnaire actually prompted them to be less likely to write to their politician about environmental issues (relative to the students who received positive feedback about their footprint). In other words, for people who aren't green minded, alarming feedback on a footprint questionnaire can actually make them less sympathetic to green causes.
it's been shown that if changing their behaviour seems too difficult, many people change their attitudes instead, in this case ditching their pro-environmental beliefs (as a way to reduce what's known as 'cognitive dissonance', which is when there's a mismatch between our attitudes and behaviour).
But we can combat this by actively writing down our intentions:
The researcher found that the percentage of people who agreed to volunteer didn't differ as a function of whether the instructions invited active or passive responding. Yet there was quite an astonishing difference in the percentage of people who actually showed up to participate in the project several days later. Of those who agreed to participate passively, only 17 percent actually appeared as promised. What about those who agreed to participate through active means? Of those, 49 percent kept their promises. In all, the clear majority of those who appeared as scheduled (74 percent) were those who had actively agreed to volunteer for the program.
On the first day of class I ask my students to write down and get signed by a parent their desired/expected grades. Now I just need to find a way to make them not discount it.


  1. The problem may not be that students fail to take what they wrote seriously but rather that they are not fully aware of the behaviors necessary to achieve the grade they desire. As a result, they fail to achieve the grade they are aiming for. As an alternative then, you may consider having students include the types of behaviors they think are necessary in achieving their desired grade when they write. Hope this helps or at least provides food for thought.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.