Monday, March 31, 2014

Sunglasses as moral blinders

A recent study found that partcipants wearing sunglasses offered a significantly less fair split of small sums of money to their counterparts. That result was attributed primarily to the sense of anonymity sunglasses seem to provide. A weakened concern for fairness could also result, though, from the reduced amount of light reaching the retina. As I wrote some time ago, there is some research indicating that stronger lighting sharpens emotional sensitivity (over the long term, light falling on the skin also affects the synthesis of vitamin D and other physiological processes, and triggers broad epigenetic adaptations). A reduction of the amount of light falling on the eye could thus induce partial affective dampening – and emotional attunement does appear to have significant influence on moral judgment.

Another team of researchers, however, have recently reached a different conclusion regarding the relationship between emotion and moral decision-making. They claim their results demonstrate that a stronger concern for justice is associated with stronger activation of brain centers involved in cognitive processing, not in emotional response as often maintained. So, it’s complicated – and I am afraid these complexities can never be fully untangled through statistical analysis. Of course, those who have the ability and inclination to submit complex social and mental processes to statistical analysis will disagree. But this disagreement itself could hardly be resolved through any amount of empirical, data-driven research – at least to my satisfaction. I guess believers and doubters in statistical rigor will continue to inhabit different mental “matrices” – until my subspecies becomes extinct.

In any case, anyone concerned he or she (more often he, I suspect) has developed an overly mellow heart or Rawlsian concern for justice as fairness can try this simple intervention  a pair of sunglasses over that alleged window to the soul, as a step toward proper Ayn Randian bliss.