Field of Science

Does science make you moral?

Over the years there have been quite a number of studies that have looked at the effects of subliminal priming with religious ideas. Often, the results of these studies show that people become more honest (like this one, for example) - and there's good reason to suppose that this is because religious beliefs really do change people's behaviour (albeit not always in straightforward ways).

But there's another interpretation. Perhaps all that's happening here is that you're reminding people of social conventions and values. Maybe that is enough to encourage people to be more morally upstanding.

Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich at the University of California Santa Barbara wanted to learn whether the "...notion of science as part of a broader moral vision of society facilitates moral and prosocial judgments and behaviors."

So, for example, in a simple study of 48 undergraduates they found that those who were science students were more likely than non-scientists to condemn date rape. Belief in science had a similar relationship, although belief in gods did not.

Of course, science students are different from normal people in lots of ways. So then they did some priming studies. These involved giving their subjects a list of words to unscramble into sentences. Half of them got sentences with a science theme (containing the words "logical", "hypothesis", "laboratory", "scientists", and "theory").

Priming had an effect . Students primed with science words were more likely to condemn date-rape, and were more likely to say that they were going to do worthy things, like giving blood, donating to charities or volunteering.

They also ran some subjects (not students this time) through the 'dictator game'. The subjects are given five dollars, and then told they can donate some (or none) to an anonymous other participants.

Those primed with science gave slightly more to the anonymous other. The difference wasn't big - the average donation was $2.29 in the 'science primed' group versus $2.16 the the group primed with neutral words. But the difference was statistically significant.

Compare that to the difference between men and women. Men donated $2.65 on average, whereas women donated only $1.68 - an interesting reflection on gender roles in US society!

What this shows is that generalized notions of science - rather than specific scientific facts - can influence moral attitudes. Which is really though-provoking, when you think about it.

After all, science is supposed to be values neutral. It isn't supposed to carry with it any moral baggage!

But of course science exists within a social context. And, at least within a university environment, it seems that the social context views science as morally worthy!
Christine Ma-Kellams, & Jim Blascovich (2013). Does ‘‘Science’’ Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior PLoS One, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057989

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. If science words have such a positive effect eg. on the opinion re date rape, how come many women feel (and often are) so deeply unwelcome in scientific communities?

    Also re who gave how much: this may also just reflect that women have usually less money at their disposal and are more in need of a few bucks tehmselves...

    1. @Anon: The hypothesis is that 'science' stimulates to behave in ways that conform to social ideals (rather than some abstract notion of moral goodness). If social norms and expectations are sexist, than that is what you'll get.

      Having said that, I don't think science is particularly sexist. Certainly, undergrads in the life sciences are predominantly female, at least in my experience. Of course, as you go up the seniority, there are fewer and fewer women - but that reflects social gender stereotypes.

      And yes, the fact that women gave less money reflects the fact that they have less money. But why? Because of gender roles say that men are the providers and women are provided for!

  2. Sorry to play the devil's advocate – but this is a great example of how (experimental) psychologists overstate their findings. From this study, we cannot infer if "science makes you moral", as the title claims. All we can tell is that priming people with short science-related words somehow makes them react differently to certain moral items – within this very artificial experimental setting.
    It's the classical problem of external validity: Do such findings generalize to real world behavior? After all, science in reality consists of more than a few scraps of language, and morality is much more than answers to a few items. I am not convinced!

    1. Well yes, but then that is true of all studies. Really, you can't take any one in isolation, especially small studies. The problem is that studying these things in 'the real world' is difficult (you can control the conditions, so you can't be sure about cause and effect). So you need to put together several studies looking at the issue in different ways in different populations.

      In the other hand, researchers need to say what their study means - otherwise people won't bother reading it. Not just psychologists. Same thing happens in medicine and probably other fields as well.

    2. You are partly right, Thomas. I am fully aware of the advantages (inferring causality) and disadvantages (artificiality) of the experimental procedure. The study's methodology is rigorous, and findings appear to be robust. I would, however, insist that researchers present their findings in a far more humble fashion than was done in this particular paper.

      After all, what is "science"? Science is an extremely diverse undertaking, consisting of a large number of people across cultures (and across time periods) researching a myriad of topics with diverse methodologies. Thus, "science" is just an umbrella term which, if not devoid of meaning, refers to a highly heterogeneous group of people and their social practices, as well as the results of these practices (arti-facts, I would call them). Such diverse a phenomenon, almost by definition, cannot have a clear-cut and uniform moral impetus. It can't!

      You rightly pointed out that researchers need to "say what their study means". What I have been observing for years is, however, a tendency towards overstating findings from experimental psychology. Catchy titles and bold statements about the significance of one's findings help to awake the readership's interest, to be sure. But they carry the risk of crossing the border of what is scientifically justified, what is supported by the data and what not. To wit, a scientific journal is not The Sun!

      Not to be too pessimistic: I would argue that it is perfectly possible to study the potential moral implications (always in plural) of the sciences (also in plural!) in a much more realistic way. It could be done, for example, by investigating what kind of concrete policy implications scientists or the public derive from scientific findings; whether scientists (or people who claim to adhere to a "scientific worldview", whatever that may be), differ from others in their attitude towards specific moral questions of the time; and so forth. Embracing the diversity of moral implications of scientific practices and findings in the real world would lead to a more complete picture of whether science "makes you moral".

      Is the Iranian nuclear scientist behaving morally right? Did their scientific upbringing deter Nazi scientists like Mengele from conducting horrible medical experiments on innocent people? Did Western countries foreign policy become more "moral" after reading Huntington's Clash of Civilization? Personally, I wish researchers in experimental psychology using priming paradigms would shy away from statements as oversimplified as those we find in this particular paper.

  3. although unnecesary, i just want to say the choir enjoys lucis' preaching to us. hellelujah!!!

    i see this stuff all the time especially in 'behavioral economics'---some experiment in a graduate economics class is used to explain deep properties of human behavior. Actually, it seems to me, what is being done is something more like those 'obediance to authority' experiments or the ones done at Harvard on the Unabomber . People are figuring out how humans will react in very controlled environments (like rats in cages) . Then, they will go to businesses to explain their findings, so the businesses can engineer certain environments where consumers can be manipulated into buying from the business. Or, perhaps vote in a certain way, for some policy that will support the business. Or, act in a certain way supported by psychologists, so they buy pharmaceutical products and then participate in society in 'acceptable' ways. (Just like good weapons scientists who must think scientifically in socially acceptable ways, or else lose their jobs and have to sell lotto tickets or become a preacher (or at least go to church, since they won't have anyone else to talk to) to survive).

    i'd also say the competetive nature of academia, and also the fact that scientists can now get 'star' status, makes people spind and sell the most trivial or speculative, possibly wack, theory as something like a new theory of evolution or relativity. It works too---there are plenty of people in the academy who are there because they discovered something like 'coke is it!' (the whole world in perfect harmony) which resonates with the gravitas of peer reviewers and also the deep moral vision of the general public.

    this is an interesting blog.


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