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Monday, May 18, 2009

Why You Think You'll Act Morally in 10 Years

For his dissertation at Lund University in Sweden, Jens Agerstrom decided to test whether our moral judgments change depending on how far away an event is in time. He wondered, for instance, if we'd be more or less likely to agree to do altruistic things like donate blood or help a friend move if we had to do them this week rather than 10 or 30 years from now.
Turns out, we attach more importance to moral values when we think about the future—which means we're less likely to act morally or altruistically the closer a dilemma gets. We think it's more acceptable to act selfishly next week than 10 years from now, and we're more likely to say we'll perform altruistic acts like donating blood or money if we don't have to do them right away. When we do imagine acting selfishly in the far future, we feel worse about it then if we imagine doing something selfish fairly soon.
The reason for the difference, Agerstrom explains, is that we think more abstractly when we consider far-future events and more concretely when we think about more immediate events. When we're asked to donate blood in the distant future,
the moral value of helping others dominates our thinking. But when the event gets closer, our concrete selfish motives kick in and our thoughts shift to things like the pain of getting pricked with a needle. —Heather Wax