Why Politicians Are Untrustworthy

People in politics like to talk about things like “values” and “morals,” but decision making research is making it increasingly clear that having an incorruptible moral code is a fake thing. (Sorry Rick Santorum). Our decisions in the face of ethical dilemmas are constructed in context and can be influenced by things like our mood, our recent actions, and the recent actions of people we know.

New research by a group of Northwestern psychologists adds yet another item to the list of factors that shape our morals: the “psychological distance” between a person and a situation. The results of five experiments suggest that physical distance (e.g. the situation occurs in Singapore) or temporal distance (e.g. the situation will occur two years from now) can lead people to focus on the consequences of an action (“consequentialism”) rather than on the rules guiding the action (“deontology”).

This distinction has a significant impact on how people deal with moral dilemmas. For example, when participants had the opportunity to build a damn that would save more fish species than it would kill, they were more likely to choose to build the damn when they were told it would be built in the future. The greater temporal distance led them to make decisions based on the consequences of their actions (increasing the number of species) rather than the rules the action breaks (being responsible for killing).

With regard to our political discourse, the study demonstrates the futility in asking politicians about their future plans, even if we assume they are 100% genuine and not influenced by political considerations. Will you invade Iran? Will you increase funding for food stamps? The contextual construction of moral decisions means that whatever a politician says when thinking about a future situation may be different from how they feel when that situation is directly in front of them.
Gong, H., Iliev, R., & Sachdeva, S. (2012). Consequences are far away: Psychological distance affects modes of moral decision making Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.09.005

One Response to Why Politicians Are Untrustworthy

  1. StaryJazvec says:

    Damn dams.

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