Does Deciding Among Morally Relevant Options Feel Like Making a Choice? How Morality Constrains People’s Sense of Choice

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Abstract

We demonstrate that a difference exists between objectively having and psychologically perceiving multiple-choice options of a given decision, showing that morality serves as a constraint on people’s perceptions of choice. Across 8 studies (N = 2,217), using both experimental and correlational methods, we find that people deciding among options they view as moral in nature experience a lower sense of choice than people deciding among the same options but who do not view them as morally relevant. Moreover, this lower sense of choice is evident in people’s attentional patterns. When deciding among morally relevant options displayed on a computer screen, people devote less visual attention to the option that they ultimately reject, suggesting that when they perceive that there is a morally correct option, they are less likely to even consider immoral options as viable alternatives in their decision-making process. Furthermore, we find that experiencing a lower sense of choice because of moral considerations can have downstream behavioral consequences: after deciding among moral (but not nonmoral) options, people (in Western cultures) tend to choose more variety in an unrelated task, likely because choosing more variety helps them reassert their sense of choice. Taken together, our findings suggest that morality is an important factor that constrains people’s perceptions of choice, creating a disjunction between objectively having a choice and subjectively perceiving that one has a choice.

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