Behind lunch choice and moral decisions: the link between attention and behavior


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Walking to the office earlier this week, I stepped right into oncoming traffic while engrossed in a conversation on the mobile phone. Usually quite mindful of my surroundings, at that point I was so preoccupied that the rules of basic traffic safety were nowhere my mind. By a funny coincidence I arrived at the office and started reading an academic paper with the attention-grabbing title “God is Watching You”.

This paper by Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan takes up where a previous psychology study left off. This previous study found that college students, when told that the ghost of a dead graduate student was spotted earlier in the testing room, cheated less on a computer test than students who were told nothing. One possible explanation for this result is that the suggestion of being watched by a supernatural being may cause or regulate pro-social behavior such as rule-following.

The “God is Watching You” study intended to investigate how both selfish and pro-social behavior, assessed experimentally through the dictator game, is affected by God concepts. Of course a study like this can’t simply introduce God or religious beliefs since participants may infer the research question and adapt their behavior accordingly. Instead the study subjects had to be primed with God concepts on the sly.

The priming took the form of word games, where subjects unscrambled word groupings to form sentences. Apparently this is a standard method to subconsciously prime subjects in psychology experiments. In the main treatment group, some of these sentences contained target words such as God or spirit. In the control group, no sentence contained these words. After priming, the subjects played a one shot dictator game where the subject divides $10 between themselves and another anonymous player.

In the control group, participants offered an average of $2.60 to their counterpart, while the group that was primed by God concepts offered an average of $4.60. Interestingly, both respondents who later identified as religious and those that identified as not particularly religions (including atheists) offered more money after primed by God concepts.

So apparently thoughts of God, activated without conscious awareness, increased acts of generosity between anonymous strangers. Yet it was not only thoughts of God that induced this generosity. Another randomized group was primed with secular concepts related to justice such as “jury”, “court”, and “contract”. It turns out this group offered $4.40 to the other players – a statistically indistinguishable amount from the group primed by God concepts. Apparently the generous behavior was not due to a belief in a supernatural being watching over you (as perhaps suggested by the dead graduate student experiment) but rather due to a subtle reminder of pro-social notions such as “fairness” and “judgment” that may not always be foremost in our mind when making decisions. And these pro-social notions can be embodied in either religious- or secular-based concepts.

The authors don’t explicitly interpret the results in this light but, after my experiences that morning, I do. Attention is necessarily limited (because it is a scarce resource) and priming is a cognitive manipulation in so far as it brings select issues to the fore. Seen in this way, the results of “God is Watching You” are quite consistent with ideas explored in previous posts on DI. We have written about how survey questions on health can induce the study subjects’ purchase of health insurance months after interview.  We also explored how subjects, preoccupied with the task of remembering a seven-digit number, are much more likely to select chocolate cake over fruit salad from a snack tray than subjects who need only remember a two-digit number. And, as my friend Berk pointed out, general stress can occupy cognitive resources that might otherwise be used on more attentive forms of parenting.

It appears that – literally – what is on our mind influences our behavior. And it is not just behavior of ephemera such as whether I should eat pizza or broccoli for lunch but whether I participate in the insurance market and whether, in any given moment, my choices are consistent with my underlying moral beliefs.

If this picture reflects a real phenomenon then it can have implications for the interpretation of impact evaluations – if an information campaign (such as “eating vegetables is good for health”) is measured to affect behavior then it may not be due to the informational content of the campaign but simply the cognitive prompt of receiving the message (“veggies!”). And of course it can have implications for the design of policy – in order to induce honest reporting behavior it may be similarly effective to remind all subjects of the possibility of audit and actually audit less than to not send reminders and audit more widely. Hmmm… sounds like a potential study design…



Jed Friedman

Senior Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Sean Dalby
March 30, 2012

These results suggest that we can guide (or control, if we are afraid of Big Brother here) behavior through subconsciously implanted reminders of social norms, mental images of veggies and so on. But could we use these experiments to build character rather than guide behavior? Or is this already an additional (possibly untestable) outcome of these experiments?

The wikipedia article says that there's some debate about whether or not participants in dictator games operate altruistically or for self-interested reasons (or if they are just bad at maximizing utility). However, if we could nail down a version of the dictator game that determined people were operating altruistically, then maybe there could be a version of the experiments above to increase people's (genuine, unselfish, etc.) concern for others.

I'm worried that it might be in principle impossible to design a study such that its results are explainable by appealing to altruism alone; how are we supposed to extract motivations from mere behavior anyway? Still, supposing there's a way around that blasted mind/body problem (or supposing someone solves it :) ), it'd be nice to see a study like this for a number of reasons. We could (a) have a known method for building character (a la virtue ethics), (b) use known-to-be altruistic actors to test basic assumptions in economics about "rationality" and, I don't know, (c) prove that atheists can be good people too, among other things I'm sure.

Alicia C.
April 13, 2012

If what is on our mind influences our behavior, then are you suggesting that if we plant ideas and thoughts into an individual's mind that he or she may act a certain way because of their thoughts? Instead of trying to guide a certain action, it would be interesting to see how peoples’ character would change if an idea was planted in their thoughts. Are people going to behave a certain way only for short time while the idea is in their head, or can this study help shape character and help encourage people to act in a morally correct way every day?