A COVID-19 world of restricted movement is an interesting time to test what’s known as the moral barrier hypothesis, and a new small study has come up with an interesting result.
The hypothesis posits that moral violations can be inhibited by the introduction of spatial boundaries, including ones that do not physically impede the act of transgressing.
When researchers in the US, Canada and China tried to both entice young children to cheat on a maths test and discourage them from doing so, that’s exactly what happened.
Attempts to peek at the answers on an adjoining desk fell from 50% to 20-30% when there was a barrier in the way, but it didn’t matter if the barrier was made of glass or even, in one experiment, just drawn in the air with a “magic wand” (the subjects were aged five and six).
The barrier had to be between the two desks to be effective, but it didn’t have to actually impede a child’s view.
“Our work illustrates the power of ‘nudges,’ which Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler has shown to be effective at getting adults to behave in desirable ways,” says Gail Heyman from the University of California San Diego, US, lead author of a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It also suggests that people’s ideas about morality are deeply rooted in how they think about space. This is probably why there are so many spatial metaphors for morality such as ‘cross the line’ and ‘keep on the straight and narrow’.”
The researchers point to the power of simple rope lines at airports or, in a world of social distancing, circles to signal how far apart people should stand.
There is another side to the story, however. First author Li Zhao, from China’s Hangzhou Normal University, says the researchers were “surprised to see academic cheating” among children as young as five, especially given the lack of obvious incentives for them to do so.
They guess that most wanted to get a high score to impress the experimenter, which suggests the desire to impress other people – even strangers – drives human behaviour starting in early childhood.
In the test, the first four questions were easy. It was only the final one – the one needed to complete it fully – that was hard.
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