In the study, led by Lars Hall, Petter Johansson and Thomas Strandberg, participants were presented with a questionnaire about either fundamental ethical principles or current hot topics with moral implications, such as illegal immigration or the legalisation of prostitution.
What was different about this questionnaire was that the researchers used a magic trick to change the participants’ answers, so that they were suddenly claiming the opposite of what they had originally declared (see a video demonstration of the experiment, http://www.lucs.lu.se/cbq/).
The researchers then asked the participants to explain their answers and found that many participants supported their reported answers, even though the responses were the opposite of what they had originally intended to express. Lars Hall observes that “participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position”, suggesting “a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes”.
“We want to stress that this is not about how to trick people, or ‘expose’ how well thought out their opinions are”, says Thomas Strandberg, co-author of the study.
“If you are politically active or involved in one of the topics addressed in the study, you may well be disappointed that the views of our participants were not stronger and that they could be influenced by our questionnaire. However, we see it rather as an indication that it is unreasonable to expect people to have very specific opinions on all sorts of topics; our survey demonstrates that they are considerably more open and flexible in their attitudes than opinion polls usually show.”
“The most important conclusion to draw from this experiment is that extreme care should be taken in relying on answers from typical questionnaire surveys. Our results suggest that this type of instrument is very poorly suited to capturing the complexity of people’s attitudes”, comments Lars Hall, a researcher in cognitive science at the Department of Philosophy, Lund University.