What Makes Us Accept Unacceptable Acts?

One of the famous psychological tricks for getting what you want is the “foot in the door” technique. Before asking for what you really want, you first request something small. Once the person commits to assisting your cause by fulfilling your initial request, they’re more likely to say yes to the larger request that follows.

A new study by UCSB’s Kimberly Hartson and David Sherman takes this idea and drops it into a new context. Instead of examining how initially committing to help somebody can lead to fulfilling gradually escalating requests, they wanted to know whether initially approving of somebody’s actions can lead to less disapproval when the person commits gradually escalating immoral acts. Specifically, they hypothesized that when a person judges a relatively benign act that gradually escalates into something heinous, they will judge the final act less harshly than people who only judge the final act.

Hartson and Sherman devised a series of experiments in which participants read about instances of immoral behavior that escalated from normal circumstances (e.g. a date that escalated into rape or a bar conversation that escalated into murder.) One group of participants read the story in a series of chunks and made judgments about the perpetrator’s behavior after each chunk. The other group read the whole story at once and only made one judgment after finishing the story. As predicted, participants who judged and gave semi-approval to the more-defensible earlier acts (e.g. asking the rape victim out on a date) judged the perpetrators to be less guilty of their final acts.

This is the kind of finding that can lead to speculation about almost anything, but I think it provides a particularly good explanation for why people don’t do more when a military conflict that begins for socially acceptable reasons escalates into a series of terrible atrocities. Once you accept that it’s ok for two sides to kill each other, it requires some psychological dexterity to really be disturbed by the circumstances under which the killing takes place.

To get even more specific, I think the study also provides a decent explanation for the American government’s seemingly nonchalant views on torture. In this instance the authorization of torture in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is the initial ambiguous act. While there was no absolute escalation — once you say it’s ok to torture there’s not much more you can do — I think supporting torture in the face of a declining threat is essentially a relative escalation of an immoral act. Certainly favoring torture in 2012 represents a more morally reprehensible position than favoring torture in October 2001 (although I suppose one could argue that favoring torture is equally immoral in all situations.) Because people who still support torture arrived at their position through this gradual relative escalation over the last decade, other people, particularly those who may have briefly supported torture after 9/11, judge the torture supporters less harshly than they would had the torture supporters suddenly announced their position this morning.
Hartson, K.A., & Sherman, D.K. (2012). Gradual escalation: The role of continuous commitments in perceptions of guilt Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.06.005

One Response to What Makes Us Accept Unacceptable Acts?

  1. Pingback: How Music Can Alter Moral Judgments - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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