Do reasons or decisions come first?

The best psychologists are good at deceiving their subjects. If volunteers cotton on to what a study is really about, some of them say and do what they can to please the researchers, whilst others do what they can to mess the experiment up. Trickery is therefore in the psychologist's job description, as is caring in the nurse's and cruelty in the dentist's.

Psychologists aren’t the first professionals to make a career out of duplicity. Magicians were plying their trade when medics were still drilling holes in the skull to relieve mental illness. To understand better what goes on in the head, Swedish psychologists have studied the techniques of their predecessors: magicians.

With strong glues, a pre-prepared clipboard and false pages, they created a trick questionnaire. Volunteers marked their answers on page one, turned over to fill in page two, and when they flipped back to their original answers, some of them had been switched.

For example, you might be presented with the principle ‘Even if an action might harm the innocent, it can still be morally permissible to perform it’. You reflect and decide that it’s seven on a one-to-nine scale (1 'completely disagree’; 9 'completely agree’). You do the second page, go back and you’ve marked a seven next to the statement `If an action might harm the innocent, then it is not morally permissible to perform it’.

Hardly anybody noticed the magic. Some, on reviewing their answers, thought they must have filled it in wrong. But the majority were fooled. They thought that the flipped answer represented their considered belief.

This is surprising. The same group of psychologists have done other magic tricks. They’ve swapped jams and teas in consumer tests. They’ve switched pictures of women that men had rated. In general, they’ve gotten away with it.

But entering those experiments, participants can’t have had strong opinions about women they’d never seen or jams they hadn’t tasted.

The statements in the questionnaire were controversial. Is it morally defensible to purchase sexual services? Is it commendable to harbour illegal immigrants?

In Sweden, both these topics have been publicly debated: ten years before the experiment, Sweden changed its prostitution laws; a few years after the experiment, a political party with white-nationalist roots gained one-in-six votes.

This was reflected in the strength of opinions that the volunteers gave. The average rating was 7.2 when participants agreed with the statement, and 2.8 when they didn’t.

After pulling off their trick, the experimenters asked the participants to explain their answers. Why is buying sex acceptable; why shouldn’t you harbour illegal immigrants?

At this stage, people’s arguments and passion and moral certainty came into play. The more extreme their view on the questionnaire, the more forceful was their defence of it. But it was a defence of the flipped answer rather than the one they originally gave.

Elsewhere on this blog, we have shown that moral views can’t be reached through considered moral reasoning: it’s impossible. The types of facts that any such argument would rest on simply don’t exist. Moral reasoning must be doing something else.

This experiment suggests that a part of what it’s doing is giving a social justification of our moral choices. Rather than forming views based on arguments, we create arguments based on our views.

It’s not only psychologists who deceive their subjects; we readily deceive ourselves. And, for my money, the results are more dramatic than any cape-clad ham yanking a rabbit out of a hat or making an elephant disappear.

Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink.