A study by Rimma Teper, Michael Inzlicht, and Elizabeth Page-Gould of the University of Toronto Scarborough tested the difference between moral forecasting and moral action-and the reasons behind any mismatch.
They found that emotions such as fear, love or guilt play a big role in determining our actions. However, when people are contemplating how they'll act, "they don't have a good grasp of the intensity of the emotions they will feel in the breach," says Teper, so they misjudge what they'll do.
For this study, three groups of students were given a math test of 15 questions.
One group was told that a glitch in the software would cause the correct answer to show on the screen if they hit the space bar-but only they would know they'd hit it. This group took the test; a $5 reward was promised for 10 or more right answers.
Another group was given a description of this moral dilemma, and was then asked to predict whether or not they would cheat for each question.
The third group just took the test without the opportunity to cheat.
Results showed that those facing the real dilemma were most emotional. Their emotions drove them to do the right thing and refrain from cheating.
But those who were only asked to predict or take the test without cheating were a lot calmer. However, emotions conflict, and that figures in decision making too.
"If the stakes were higher-say, the reward was 100 dollars-the emotions associated with that potential gain might override the nervousness or fear associated with cheating," says Teper.
In future research, "we might try to turn this effect around" and see how emotion leads people to act less morally than they forecast.
"This time, we got a rosy picture of human nature," Inzlicht comments.
"But the essential finding is that emotions are what drive you to do the right thing or the wrong thing."
The study appears in Psychological Science.