Scientists find trick to reverse moral opinions

A small patch of glue can trick people into reversing their opinions
Nature Newstream

(CBS News) A new study finds that a person's moral compass is surprisingly easy to throw off. With nothing more than a clipboard, a survey and a small patch of glue, researchers were able to get participants to not only subconsciously change their minds but even argue the opposite of their original opinions.

The study, led by Lars Hall of Sweden's Lund University, asked 160 volunteers to fill out a quick 2-page survey on moral principles and the morality of current events - such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unbeknownst to the participants, a patch of glue was stuck to the back of the survey clipboard. When flipping to the second page, the top set of statements would stick to the back of the clipboard, revealing a different set of questions but leaving the responses unchanged.

Published in the journal PLoS One, the study slightly altered the hidden statements to mean the opposite of what they said originally. One example used in the study: "Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic out to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism." When the hidden statements were revealed, the original had been reworded from "forbidden" to "permitted."

Participants then read the statements aloud, including the ones that had been altered, and explain their opinions. Researchers found that half of participants did not detect any changes to the statements, and a full 69 percent accepted at least one of the altered statements.

Not only were the volunteers unlikely to spot the changes, 53 percent argued in favor of the altered statements rather than their original opinions.

Hall and his team have studied this phenomenon previously, calling it "choice blindness."

"I don't feel we have exposed people or fooled them," Hall told the journal Nature. "Rather this shows something otherwise very difficult to show, [which is] how open and flexible people can actually be."

The study may have ramifications concerning the accuracy of self-report questionnaires. Hall believes that standard surveys "are not good at capturing the complexity of the attitudes people actually hold."

Liane Young, a psychologist at Boston College who was not involved in the study, called the results "intriguing."

"These findings suggest that if I'm fooled into thinking that I endorse a view, I'll do the work myself to come up with my own reasons," she told Nature.