Older isn’t wiser in moral reasoning

From Washington, D.C., at the 108th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association

According to the 1920s-vintage ideas of psychologist Jean Piaget, moral reasoning matures just like abstract reasoning does. Followers of Piaget argue that children begin with the idea of immanent justice—the notion that the natural world punishes human misdeeds—but then outgrow such beliefs.

Psychologists Lakshmi Raman and Gerald A. Winer of Ohio State University in Columbus put this assumption to the test and found that the opposite appears to be true.

They gave stories to 154 sixth-graders and 132 college students in India and to similar numbers of their U.S. counterparts. Previous work had shown that Indian culture fosters belief in immanent justice more than U.S. culture does.

The vignettes all described a robber who contracts a mysterious deadly disease. Some of the stories included statements such as “what goes around comes around,” which reinforce the basic idea behind immanent justice.

As expected, the Indian students were more likely to agree that the robber became ill because he was bad. Statements that reinforced immanent-justice beliefs increased the frequency of this reasoning in the Indian group but not in the U.S. students.

The researchers were surprised to learn that college students applied immanent justice significantly more often—more than five times as often as in the U.S. sample—than did sixth-graders.

Raman notes that the literature has never before shown that adults think in terms of immanent justice. The new results, suggest that children understand the biological basis of illness but become socialized into acceptance of irrational immanent-justice judgments, Winer says.