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Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Jay Jackson


Department of Psychology


While many studies have demonstrated that conformity pressures influence judgments of ambiguous and unambiguous stimuli, few have examined how such pressures influence moral judgments. We examined how conformity pressures (giving public vs. private responses) affect reactions to unambiguous moral dilemmas (dilemmas that the vast majority of people, in general, agree on) and ambiguous moral dilemmas (dilemmas that people tend to be split on). We expected greater conformity to ambiguous moral dilemmas than unambiguous ones, and predicted that perceived difficulty, agreeableness, confidence, and desire-for-correctness would moderate conformity effects.

To test our predictions, we tested sixty undergraduate participants in individual laboratory sessions. The participant waited with two other “participants” (actually accomplices). After completing measures of personality, the three “participants” responded to 12 moral dilemmas using an Asch-like paradigm. Each dilemma was read out loud by the experimenter (e.g., trolley dilemma, crying baby dilemma). Responses were made publically or privately using a 7-point scale (highly impermissible to highly permissible). In the public condition the participant gave his/her response last. In response to the 10 unambiguous moral dilemmas presented, the accomplices responded normatively to four, violated an impermissible norm in response to three, and violated a permissible norm in response to three. In response to the two ambiguous items, the accomplices responded with high permissibility to one and high impermissibility to the other. Participants then completed a post-session questionnaire.

We analyzed our data using analysis of variance procedures. As expected, we obtained a significant public/private x dilemma-type interaction for the ambiguous dilemmas, F (1, 57) = 38.18, p < .001. When expressed privately, responses to the items did not differ (Ms = 3.62 and 3.24); but when expressed publically, responses were significantly influenced by the accomplices’ judgments (M = 2.40 vs. 4.87, for impermissible and permissible judgments, respectively). An equally significant conformity effect was found with the unambiguous dilemmas, F (1, 57) = 37.25, p < .001. These conformity effects were significantly moderated by confidence and perceived difficulty. Participants who expressed greater confidence in their moral stances exhibited less conformity, while those who perceived the dilemmas as more difficult exhibited more conformity.

Our results demonstrate that responses to moral situations, even those that are unambiguous, are significantly influenced by conformity pressures. However, these effects are moderated by confidence and perceived difficulty. Given the pervasiveness of moral systems and judgments, the implications are important and further research warranted.

Social Conformity to Moral Dilemmas