Morality for $20,000

By Mona Malacane

It’s always nice to win things, particularly money. And especially money that you beat other smart people to win. It takes effort, planning, and most importantly, the willingness to apply in the first place. If you do take that first step of initiative, you could join the growing dissertation fellowship club, which now includes Nic Matthews, who was recently awarded a $20,000 Dissertation Year Research Fellowship by the College of Arts and Sciences.

If I won dissertation money, this is probably how I would feel.

If I won dissertation money, this is probably how I would feel.

Nic’s dissertation is inspired by two, battling theories of morality. One of these theories explains that our actions are driven by altruism, while the other says that our actions are almost always in some way selfishly motivated. The problem, however, is that much of the published work in this area is either theoretical or thought experiments with very few empirical studies. Nic explains that the “pen and paper” thought experiments are often vignettes that describe a moral conundrum and then prompt you to describe how you would respond in the situation. While these experiments are well controlled, they are limited in their ecological validity.

So to increase the ecological validity without losing experimental control, Nic plans to pit the two theories against one another in a virtual environment that he will create. Nic explained that this method is ideal because the data from simulated environment experiments are “in line with theoretical predictions for behavioral models.” In other words, simulated environments can pretty accurately mimic real-world scenarios. So Nic will build a non-violent, simulated environment, (not to be confused with a video game) with moral conundrum scenarios. “Almost the same tests as pen and paper, but bring it into a virtual world,” he says. His plan is for this to be a “central environment” into which he can add different moral scenario modules to test in both his dissertation and future studies.

But even when you have a good problem to solve, a great idea on how to solve it, and the method with which to solve it, there will be bumps in the road. Nic warns that with any individual study, “when you’re about half way through it, or writing it, or thinking about it, you start to really doubt yourself … massive doubt. And you start thinking, ‘this is crap, this is awful, why am I studying this? There are so many things that I could be doing instead …’” But don’t let these thoughts be self-defeating and prevent you from applying in the first place! Listen to your advisors and colleagues when they reinforce you because, as Nic says, “whenever you start to doubt [your ideas], it’s usually just you.”



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