Moral decision making sometimes involves weighing trade-offs between self-serving interests and causing harm to others. Social psychology experiments reveal a moral “slippery slope.” That is, once experimental participants begin making decisions that serve their own interests but harm others, they progressively become more self-serving and less concerned about harm to others as time goes on. Moral decision-making includes decisions about what actions to take as well as judgments about how ethical those decisions are.
Mindfulness training might affect how moral decisions are made and judged by cultivating a present-moment focus that reduces goal-oriented behavior (seeking future gain) or by increasing empathy for others. Du et al. [Scientific Reports] tested the effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on moral decision-making involving tradeoffs between benefits to self and harm to self and others.
The researchers randomly assigned 68 meditation-naïve Chinese participants (75% female; Average age = 30 years) to either an 8-week MBSR course or a wait-list control. The MBSR protocol was the standard MBSR protocol delivered in a Chinese-language format. All participants engaged in moral decision making and judgment tasks and completed Chinese-language versions of mindfulness (the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire), emotional regulation, and failures in executive control (problems in planning, impulsivity, and motivation) questionnaires one week prior to and after intervention.
In the moral decision-making task, participant pain thresholds were assessed to determine the level of electric shock needed to evoke a pain of “8” on a 10-point pain scale. Participants then engaged in a series of 96 decision making trials in which they chose between receiving various amounts of money while receiving painful shocks or giving them to another “person” in the next room. There was, in fact, no other person in the next room. Participants then rated the other “person’s” choices on the same task in terms of how moral their decisions were
Results from the study showed that mindfulness and executive control scores were significantly higher in the MBSR group as compared to controls after the intervention. While the control group showed an increased willingness to inflict harm on another as compared to oneself from pre- to post-testing (the “slippery slope” effect), the MBSR group did not (partial η2= 0.08).
Using Bayesian hierarchical drift diffusion modeling, the researchers established that the amount of money participants received for each decision had less of an effect on MBSR decision-makers than controls. In other words, MBSR suppressed the influence of increases in money on moral decision-making, whereas controls were more likely to morally justify causing harm to others when the amount of monetary compensation was sufficiently high.
MBSR did not make participants more moral compared to their own baseline but reduced the magnitude of the slippery slope compared to controls.
In terms of moral judgment, participants became less judgmental of other’s choices from pretesting to post-testing. Participants weighted the importance of money more and the importance of pain less during post-testing than pretesting. There was a difference between groups in this effect, however. For controls, the same amount of money justified more harm in post-testing than pretesting, whereas the amount of money had less of an effect on the mindfulness group’s judgment.
The study shows MBSR can shift the relative value of monetary gain in moral decision making and judgment involving harm compared to a wait-list control.
The study is limited by the lack of an active control and the possibility that group differences in moral performance may owe more to the demand characteristics of having been in a mindfulness condition than to cognitive changes due to mindfulness per se.
Du, W., Yu, H., Liu, X., & Zhou, X. (2023). Mindfulness training reduces slippery slope effects in moral decision-making and moral judgment. Scientific Reports, 13(1), 2967.
Link to study