The Science of Morality

by Teresa Lynch

Left to right: Nic Matthews, Andrew Weaver, and Nicky Lewis

Since roughly the beginning of 2012 Professor Andrew Weaver and PhD students Nicky Lewis and Nic Matthews have been meeting with a multidisciplinary group to discuss morality. This group had grown and evolved and is now has a formal name – Science of Morality Interest Group.

The group began not long after Professor John Kruschke of the Psychology department completed teaching a seminar on morality. Nicky says that “[Dr. Kruschke] started [the] moral perspectives research group, where people from all disciplines with an interest in morality could come together and basically bounce ideas off of each other. Since the group is made up of people from all different schools and departments, such as philosophy, drama, business, etc., we all get to share ideas from different points of view.”

The three Telecom participants see much value in such multifaceted thinking.  Andrew noted that “when you dive into the research that’s being done in other disciplines, you’re bound to uncover some worthwhile information. We’ve also found that conducting research using games is a way to address barriers that morality researchers from other disciplines have come up against. For example, philosophers or psychologists using traditional thought experiments to study moral decisions are capturing a type of decision making that is very specific and often much more deliberative/artificial than what one would experience in real life. Video games provide us with the opportunity to study decision making in much more natural contexts. Other members of the group have been very receptive to using games as a means to examine these behaviors.”

And the use games for studying moral choice has been one major contribution from the Telecom contingent. Regarding that contribution, Nic said “it’s great. Talking about games as a method sparks lots of conversation. People genuinely get excited at the thought of simulating moral decision making by embedding participants in virtual environments.”

For Andrew and Nic, their interest and previous work on media violence – sometimes specifically addressing violence in games – offered a natural bridge into research on moral choice. Andrew explained that “the real hook for me, though, was the choice involved with certain types of game violence. A first person shooter where the objective is just to mow down the opposition is one thing, but when a player gets to make real decisions about whether or not to harm another character … well, that sort of input into the aggressive act is something that’s just not a part of other types of media violence  I believe that the shift from observer to actor in this context is an important shift, but we know very little at this point about what the impact of this actually is. Because these kinds of decisions in games were often framed as moral choices, we then jumped into this line of research.”

Nicky’s interest in morality was piqued a bit differently. She explained that although her previous work had largely investigated participation in the competitive environments of fantasy sports, she had some exposure to moral choice but in a different way – “through traditional disposition theory and how that theory informed the behavior of sports fans.”  Her participation in one of Andrew’s projects on moral choice in games got her involved with morality in a more focused way. She says she has been strongly influenced by this line of research in ways she didn’t expect, even beginning to “[ask]different types of questions now, especially as it relates to how individuals form evaluations about others. Working with Andrew has been a great experience and getting our first research project published validated the importance of this research. The opportunities in this area are wide open and the advantages that using videogames have for answering questions related to moral decision-making are palpable.”

Image from Fallout 3, the game used in Andrew and Nicky’s study.

Andrew’s collaborative study with Nicky titled “Mirrored Morality: An Exploration of Moral Choice in Video Games” was recently published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The study has also received recognition in Popular Science, a mixed blessing according to Andrew. Although he appreciates the recognition and realizes that for work in our field to make a difference it must be disseminated to the broader community, he also see the attention as “a double-edged sword.” He says that although many of the journalists he’s spoken with have the best intentions, they are charged with the difficult task of boiling a complex scientific study full of nuance into a brief and generally digestible piece. This often leads to misrepresentation in some way, a problem Andrew says “can be a bit discouraging.”

Still, the future of studying morality in our department and beyond is bright. Drawing from the Science of Morality Interest Group and other sources Nic notes that “the area is ripe for exploration. In our meetings I hear so many great and untapped ideas that I end up with numerous study ideas after each meeting. It seems like the challenge is picking where to start rather than generating ideas.” Similarly, Andrew sees positive future outcomes of the group as he says “there is a lot of brainstorming that goes on in these meetings, and already some of the ideas from other members of the group – things we never would have thought of had we stayed grounded in the comm literature – have been incorporated into the ongoing studies that we’ve been working on. We also have at least one concrete study idea using interdisciplinary collaboration that we’re hoping to get funding to conduct in the next year.”

Regarding the fruitfulness of collaborations within Telecom, Andrew also sees great things happening. He says he has “enjoyed working with both Nicky and Nic on these projects. Great graduate students – and both of them are – bring ideas and motivation that can really energize a body of research. These studies wouldn’t be half of what they are if it wasn’t for their input and effort.”

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