Research Lead: An Unexpected Sense of Culpability, Sifting Through Positive Reviews, Social Tipping Points, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

When following orders makes you feel more culpable

If someone died because of a policy you set, how guilty would you feel? What about if someone died as a result of a policy your boss ordered you to implement? If you’re like the authors of a recent study, you’d expect people to feel more culpable if they made the decision, not if they were just following orders. But that’s not what the researchers found in their series of five moral dilemma experiments in which participants had to set policies for self-driving cars or restaurants reopening during the pandemic and then were told of a negative outcome resulting from the policy. 

 “When people imagined themselves to be the person who made the decision compared with implementing the will of their superior … they did not feel less culpable after having obeyed the orders of another; they felt more culpable,” the authors write. The setup of the current study didn’t allow the authors to pinpoint why this might be the case, but it may be that people felt they went against their own moral standards when they enacted the will of their imagined superior. 

One caveat of the current research is that was conducted online with hypothetical scenarios. While the findings point to something new to consider when we evaluate responsibility for decisions (or a crime), they’ll need to stand up in more generalizable settings. [Psychological Science]

What to do amid the sea of overly positive reviews?

Ratings for online products and services are overwhelmingly high—think four or five stars out of five. This creates a problem for consumers because if all the ratings are the same, they cease to provide any information. Matthew Rocklage and his colleagues have dubbed this the “positivity problem.” In a series of four studies they document this phenomenon, showing that movies, books, commercials, and restaurants might receive similar ratings but have very different levels of quality and success. 

If you are looking for a diagnostic signal, the authors did find that the emotionality of reviews was more calibrated to reality. However, the authors had the advantage of being able to systematically analyze thousands of reviews. I (Evan) am not sure where this leaves me trying to find a restaurant or movie on a Friday night. But safe to say, if I make a bad choice, I’ll reference this research in my defense. [Nature Human Behavior]

Political resistance in repressive countries 

Most social psychological research on collective action has been conducted in democratic societies, where forms of activism like public protest are relatively safe. But these findings aren’t likely to translate to countries where resistance is met by harsh authoritarian measures, prompting a team of researchers to examine psychological predictors of collective action in repressive contexts. Surveys among protestors in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and Hong Kong revealed that in contrast to protests in democratic societies, protestors in these contexts aren’t motivated by political efficacy, but rather by outrage at state repression, belief in building a movement, and a sense of moral obligation to act. [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; open access

Translating research to action on adverse childhood experiences 

While this past year-plus has been undoubtedly hard on all of us, it has been extra hard on kids. (Consider that for a 5-year-old, one year represents 20 percent of their life; for an adult, a year is a much smaller blip in relative time.) We know that adverse childhood experiences can have lifelong impacts, but translating research to practice isn’t always straightforward. A special edition of American Psychologist tackles the science, practice, and policy behind these experiences. Through 15 articles, scientists explore how to define and assess childhood ordeals and develop high-quality services for those impacted. [American Psychologist]

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Pyramid, based on the Centers for Disease Control-Kaiser ACE Study which demonstrated that ACEs are “strongly related to development of risk factors for disease, and well-being throughout the life course.”
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Are you your mind or your body? 

Aristotle thought the heart was the center of the emotional and rational being. Descartes believed it to be centered in the pineal gland. David Hume scoffed at the idea of a static self. How do modern research participants’ beliefs on where the “true self” resides stack up to historical philosophers? Well, at least in one study, participants held conflicting beliefs about where the “true me” is situated. Across three experiments gauging whether people identify the true self as residing in the mind or body, researchers found conflicting results suggesting that participants don’t believe in a single “true self” but instead endorse multiple—and at times conflicting—notions of the self. [Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Predicting social tipping points 

There are plenty of harmful social norms that exist (behavioral scientists, would probably be out of a job if this weren’t the case). But as we know, norms aren’t static, and there are plenty of historical examples of times social norms rapidly shifted, like not smoking in public in the U.S. or the rapid disappearance of the gender gap in American higher education in the 1970s. With norm changes vital to address global challenges like climate change, social scientists have developed a model to understand what tips the balance for these rapid societal shifts—and to predict when they’re going to happen. In a large laboratory experiment, scientists found that their model correctly predicted with 96 percent accuracy whether a society would succeed or fail to abandon a detrimental norm. The main hurdle preventing change is perceived cost associated with the transition to a new norm, but policies that help increase collective understanding of the benefits can help ease the transition. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Measuring the changing electorate in the United States

New work examines how voter composition (differences in voter turnout from one election to the next) and voter conversion (a voter switching parties)—changed in six states from the 2012 to the 2016 presidential election. 

“While both compositional change and conversion were crucial to the unexpected GOP victory in 2016,” the authors write, “conversion explains more of the observed electoral change than composition. Conversion is particularly important in the states with the largest swing in party margin between the two elections—Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.” [Science]

Targeting small businesses with behavioral science 

The U.S. government’s Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) recently partnered with the Small Business Administration to better understand and design interventions to help small business owners. Here you’ll find a portfolio of their recent work, including increasing microloan applications for farmers and boosting enrollment in an education program. You’ll also find preregistration plans and publications of null results. [OES Small Business Portfolio]

Rigor reforms in research can have unintended consequences 

After reckoning with decades of research blunders in the social and behavioral sciences (most infamously the replication crisis and high-profile incidences of data fabrication), a series of reforms were introduced aimed at curbing less-than-rigorous research practices. These practices include preregistration, conducting replication studies, and a commitment to transparently reporting methods and results. A new paper asks, “How do behavioral scientists experience exploration and confirmation amidst methodological reforms?” 

Across three studies with over 1,000 researchers as participants, the authors found that rigor reforms had a series of unintended consequences. Engaging in a preregistration task hindered finding an interesting (but nonhypothesized) result, and research participants found exploratory research less anxiety-producing and more enjoyable, motivating, and interesting when compared to confirmatory research. The authors conclude that confirmation and exploration should coexist in research—and so should joy and rigor. [Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes]