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The Cinnabon Made Me Do It: Surprising Influences on Moral Behavior

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“These factors seem to have a demonstrable impact on our behavior, and yet are morally irrelevant in the sense that they should not matter to what a morally virtuous person would do. What should we make of results like these?”

Suppose you are walking along in a shopping mall when suddenly someone approaches you to ask for help making change for a dollar. You gladly help—after all, it’s a small thing, and you have the change. Soon enough, you are on your way to the music store to buy some new headphones.

However, unbeknownst to you, something in your situation gave your helping a boost—the smell of the delicious Mrs. Fields cookies you had just passed by minutes before helping the stranger. In fact, were it not for the smell, you might have not helped at all.

How do we know this? It’s thanks to a fun study published in 1997 by the psychologist Robert Baron. In Baron’s set-up, shoppers in a mall had no idea that they were part of a study. Some of them (the control group) were approached to make change by a stranger after they had walked past neutral clothing stores. Others (the experimental group) were approached after they had walked passed Mrs. Fields Cookies or Cinnabon. The results were dramatic:

Passing Clothing Stores Passing Bakery Stores
Males Helping22%45%
Females Helping17 %61%

Baron’s work is an example of a striking body of research in social psychology over the past sixty years which has found that whether we act well or badly can be significantly influenced by morally irrelevant factors in our environment. Not only that, but these factors often exert their influence under our conscious radar screens. After all, most of the shoppers presumably had no idea that the pleasant smells were swaying them to be more helpful.

Here are a few more examples of these surprising influences on our moral behavior:

Bathroom. Participants in a study published in 1984 had an opportunity to help by delivering some documents to a location 40 meters away. In the control condition, 45% of participants agreed to carry the papers. In the experimental condition, 80% of participants agreed. The only difference? The second group were people who had just exited a public bathroom.

Signing at the Top. Lisa Shu and her colleagues had participants take a 20 problem test where they would be paid $1 per correct answer. Afterward they got to grade their tests and complete a form indicating how many answers they got “right,” as well as their travel expenses in coming to the study. One group of participants had to sign the form first at the top of the page and then complete the rest of it. Another group signed it last at the bottom of the page. A third group didn’t have to sign at all. Here were the results:

Percent CheatedExpenses Claimed
Sign at Top37%$5.27
Sign at Bottom79%$9.62
No Signature64%$8.45

Remarkably, where the opportunity to sign was placed on the form seemed to make a large difference.

Lady in Distress. In the classic 1969 “Lady in Distress” experiment, the goal was to see what impact bystanders would have on helping. A participant completing a survey would hear a loud crash in the next room and a woman’s scream, followed by cries of pain as a bookshelf had apparently fallen on top of her. A participant who was alone helped 70% of the time. But when a participant was with an unresponsive confederate, he or she helped only 7% of the time.

I could cite dozens of studies which found similar surprising factors at work. These factors seem to have a demonstrable impact on our behavior and yet are morally irrelevant in the sense that they should not matter to what a morally virtuous person would do.

What should we make of results like these?

Philosophy Weighs In

While psychologists have known about these results for a long time, researchers in many other fields have only recently begun to pay attention to them. In my own field of philosophy, for instance, there has been a surge of interest in better understanding what follows from this research, especially when it comes to our underlying moral characters and not just our momentary actions. In particular, three alleged implications have received a lot of attention:

1: Evidence for Lack of Virtue.

A compassionate person would not be significantly influenced to help by the smell of cookies or by a stranger who is doing nothing during an emergency. If helping was the morally correct thing to do, then a compassionate person would help regardless of the smells in the air or the hesitancy of others. But most people don’t seem to function this way, so there is good reason to call into question whether we are compassionate. This generalizes to the other virtues as well. 

To make matters worse, when we look at the leading psychological explanations for what is going on in these studies, they do not paint a particularly virtuous picture either. Take the smell of Cinnabon again. Why did those pleasing odors make such a difference in boosting helping? While speculative, one leading explanation is that the smells put a shopper in a good mood, which in turn activates a desire to maintain that good mood. When an opportunity to help maintain that mood arises, the shopper is motivated to help as a form of positive mood maintenance. And that is hardly a virtuous reason for assisting a stranger in need.

I find this first claim about evidence for lack of virtue to be plausible and indeed have supported it at length in my own work. There are good grounds for thinking that most of us fall short of having the moral virtues.

2: Trouble for Virtue Ethics.

Some philosophers have gone beyond the claim of lack of virtue to say that studies on morally irrelevant factors cause serious trouble for a leading theory of ethics, namely virtues ethics (most famously associated with Aristotle). During the past fifty years virtue ethics has established itself as a genuine contender to both utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) and deontology (Immanuel Kant). Simplifying greatly, the approach holds that questions about what kind of person we should become are central to ethical theorizing, rather than questions about what action to perform or what the consequences may be. A right action, for instance, is often understood by virtue ethics in terms of what a fully virtuous person would do (or would advise me to do) in a given set of circumstances.

In this case, I must confess that I have never been able to understand why our general lack of virtue and our sensitivity to morally irrelevant considerations are supposed to cause trouble for virtue ethics. The view is concerned with how we should live and act, and not primarily with how we actually live and act. Indeed, Aristotle himself thought that the virtues were rarely possessed.

3: A Practical Challenge to Character Development.

So, this research does not undermine virtue ethics, and neither does it show that being a virtuous person is utterly impossible to achieve. To be fair, though, it does serve to raise a practical challenge.

Suppose it is correct to say that these and other relevant experiments suggest that most of us are not virtuous. At the same time, we still believe it is important to become virtuous, to actually acquire the virtues. Virtues are intrinsically good, exercising them makes the world a better place; they are celebrated in all the major world religions, and they even promote our own well-being. So given this gap between how we tend to be like, and how we should be, what can we do to gradually become more psychologically resistant to these non-virtuous influences?

Character improvement is a huge topic, but let me end with two very preliminary suggestions.

Moving Forward

The first is simply to become aware of these influences. When asked to predict whether, say, unresponsive bystanders would have a significant impact on whether we would help in an emergency, our initial tendency is likely to say, “No, of course not.” But given the research suggesting otherwise, we should rethink our self-assessment and recognize that psychological factors like fear of embarrassment can play a large role in holding us back. With this greater awareness, we can hopefully work to overcome our initial hesitancy to help when the situation arises.

Fortunately, in this case, bystander apathy is becoming increasingly recognized in our society. Much the same cannot be said for some of the other situational influences, however.

The second suggestion has to do with moral reminders. If non-moral influences can sometimes lead us astray, the thought is that intentional moral reminders can bring our focus back to where it needs to be. These might be anything from a particular reading to start the day, to a special bracelet, a meditative practice, or an inspirational text messages that you get on your phone. The idea is that over time we can pay better attention to moral considerations naturally and effortlessly. Eventually the reminders would no longer be needed at all.

There are no easy approaches to becoming a virtuous person. Perfect virtue is out of our reach. But gradual progress is attainable, and it is worth striving for.

Christian B. Miller is A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, Aeon, Christianity Today, and Slate, and he is the author or editor of eight books. His most recent book is The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, published by Oxford University Press. You can follow him @CharacterGap.

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