The Binewskis are no ordinary family. Arty has flippers instead of limbs; Iphy and Elly are Siamese twins; Chick has telekinetic powers. These traveling circus performers see their differences as talents, but others consider them freaks with “no values or morals.” However, appearances can be misleading: The true villain of the Binewski tale is arguably Miss Lick, a physically “normal” woman with nefarious intentions.
Much like the fictional characters of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” everyday people often mistake normality as a criterion for morality. Yet, freaks and norms alike may find themselves anywhere along the good/bad continuum. Still, people use what’s typical as a benchmark for what’s good, and are often averse to behavior that goes against the norm. Why?
In a series of studies, psychologist Andrei Cimpian and I investigated why people use the status quo as a moral codebook – a way to decipher right from wrong and good from bad. Our inspiration for the project was philosopher David Hume, who pointed out that people tend to allow the status quo (“what is”) to guide their moral judgments (“what ought to be”). Just because a behavior or practice exists, that doesn’t mean it’s good – but that’s exactly how people often reason. Slavery and child labor, for example, were and still are popular in some parts of the world, but their existence doesn’t make them right or OK. We wanted to understand the psychology behind the reasoning that prevalence is grounds for moral goodness.
To examine the roots of such “is-to-ought inferences,” we turned to a basic element of human cognition: how we explain what we observe in our environments. From a young age, we try to understand what’s going on around us, and we often do so by explaining. Explanations are at the root of many deeply held beliefs. Might people’s explanations also influence their beliefs about right and wrong?
Quick shortcuts to explain our environment
When coming up with explanations to make sense of the world around us, the need for efficiency often trumps the need for accuracy. (People don’t have the time and cognitive resources to strive for perfection with every explanation, decision or judgment.) Under most circumstances, they just need to quickly get the job done, cognitively speaking. When faced with an unknown, an efficient detective takes shortcuts, relying on simple information that comes to mind readily.
For example, if I’m explaining why men and women have separate public bathrooms, I might first say it’s because of the anatomical differences between the sexes. The tendency to explain using such inherent features often leads people to ignore other relevant information about the circumstances or the history of the phenomenon being explained. In reality, public bathrooms in the United States became segregated by gender only in the late 19th century – not as an acknowledgment of the different anatomies of men and women, but rather as part of a series of political changes that reinforced the notion that women’s place in society was different from that of men.
Testing the link
We wanted to know if the tendency to explain things based on their inherent qualities also leads people to value what’s typical.
To test whether people’s preference for inherent explanations is related to their is-to-ought inferences, we first asked our participants to rate their agreement with a number of inherent explanations: For example, girls wear pink because it’s a dainty, flower-like color. This served as a measure of participants’ preference for inherent explanations.
In another part of the study, we asked people to read mock press releases that reported statistics about common behaviors. For example, one stated that 90 percent of Americans drink coffee. Participants were then asked whether these behaviors were “good” and “as it should be.” That gave us a measure of participants’ is-to-ought inferences.
These two measures were closely related: People who favored inherent explanations were also more likely to think that typical behaviors are what people should do.
We tend to see the commonplace as good and how things should be. For example, if I think public bathrooms are segregated by gender because of the inherent differences between men and women, I might also think this practice is appropriate and good (a value judgment).