Does your morality change over time?

Think of someone whose moral behavior would affect your life – whether it is a family member, work colleague, friend, or a candidate for public office. If s/he has had a record of making moral decisions in a certain direction, do you think this would dramatically change at any time? Two studies jointly say that most likely, moral decisions do not change across time.

My mother would love this study. She has always been one to point out her observations about other people’s moral behavior and she had certain “protocols” like if this person stole from her, he or she would likely do it again; or that if someone were selfish in one situation, most likely, s/he would always put self above others.

I used to listen to her when I was a teenager into my early 20’s and think that she just had the heat tolerance of an ice scream scoop on a scorching pavement. As I grew older, I too noticed that the people around me (even the ones I did not know but only knew of from public record) do not seem to basically change in the way they stand on moral issues. The way they expressed themselves may be different; they may grow to be more outgoing or the reverse as time went. They could also grow more articulate and knowledgeable but morally, they remained basically the same.  

The first study was very interesting as it mined data from young people in the 1960’s, particularly from Harvard students who were then only male. College is presumably a time of the refinement of one’s personality and one would assume, of one’s moral judgment. So the researchers wanted to see if the changes in the personalities of the college students throughout the 4 years affected how they made moral judgments.

The students answered questionnaires throughout their entire 4-year course which reflected their stance on certain issues which pitted their responsibility to society against their loyalty to peers. Examples of the questions were asking participants to: choose between privacy of official information and sharing it with a friend; writing an honest “bad” review of play of a friend; turn in a friend who cheats on a test he is proctoring for or as a test grader, be liberal in grading a friend’s paper.

The findings revealed that even if their “agreeableness” (amiability or pro-social behavior) remained relatively unchanged and that the “conscientiousness” (being organized) of the students developed throughout the 4 years, their moral judgments remained relatively stable. They are not exactly the same but within a recognizable range.

Obviously, there is more to the mystery of the making of our moral judgments than just the self-reports of Harvard male (and white!) students in the 60’s. It would be extremely interesting to see a cross-cultural study if these findings will hold.

The study of the Harvard archival data was complemented by this other study by the same researchers. This time, they eavesdropped on the moral day-to-day behavior of adults, well beyond their college years. They made 186 participants wear a recorder on their ear for 2 weekends and the researchers coded for audible moral behavior (prosocial or antisocial) such as showing affection or being sarcastic, showing gratitude or bragging, praising or complimenting, acting condescending or arrogant/criticizing others, expressing hope or doom.

Comparing the data gathered from this sanctioned eavesdropping, results seem to suggest that someone recorded and heard to be generally positive or negative one weekend is more likely to be the same also the next weekend, regardless of the change in circumstances s/he is reacting to.

If the morality of young and older adults generally do not change, how can we count on change in general if that is what it would take to have a better future?

We look to children. That is where mothers, yours and mine, know instinctively. I think these data suggest once again how crucial pre-adolescent stage is in shaping our individual moral compasses. Most societies do not hold children responsible for their moral behavior because we presume that these are not yet forged by fire in the core of our beings. If these joint studies would further be supported by more studies, we really have a relatively short window in time to get those childhood moral compasses pointing to the general direction that would favor their well-being and societies’ in general.

Could it also be that moral tendencies are also like habits – supported by strong networks in our brain which by practice, we have made “perfect” and therefore, difficult to break? If so, then how do we “break” the moral direction of convicted felons and those who have committed grave offenses? Could we still break them in a meaningful way?

Morality is I think one of those many splendored thing. I still don’t think you can generalize a moral stance across a range of situations. I think our experiences and the resulting memories and the weight we put on those memories also play a role in how we morally behave. But try we still must, to understand layer by layer, as much as we can, the tangled webs we really weave with our moral lives. –