Volume IV, Issue 1: September 2011
Peter Ditto and Sena Koleva
Steve Zylius / University Communications
Are you conservative or liberal? Which do you value more — fairness or loyalty? Are you confident when it comes to solving ethical quandaries? Find out at a survey website co-developed by UCI researchers. The results might surprise you. (Shown: Peter Ditto and Sena Koleva)

Morality unmasked

Think you know the difference between right and wrong? Let's say you're a surgeon with five patients whose survival depends upon organ transplants. A healthy patient of yours would be an ideal donor for all of them. Do you transplant his organs (against his will) into the bodies of the other patients? What if five railroad workers were in the path of a runaway train? Would you flip a switch to divert the train's path, which would save all the workers but kill a passerby?

These and other questions on morality are part of an extensive set of online quizzes created by UC Irvine researchers and colleagues at the University of Southern California and the University of Virginia. Called YourMorals, the website explores why people of various political leanings — liberals, conservatives and libertarians — disagree so vehemently on matters of good and evil.

Users sign up, identify their political and religious backgrounds, and take quizzes that determine their stands on a range of moral concerns, such as the importance of helping the less fortunate or respecting authority figures.

Since the website went online in 2008, more than 150,000 people worldwide have completed surveys. Besides fostering self-knowledge, YourMorals has proven academically fruitful, with half a dozen published research papers reporting data collected on the site.

Peter Ditto, UCI professor and chair of psychology & social behavior, developed the website with graduate students Sena Koleva and Sean Wojcik of UCI; Jesse Graham and Ravi Iyer of USC; and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia.

The idea originated three years ago during a night of lively intellectual sparring among the researchers, who were attending the Society for Personality & Social Psychology's annual meeting in Memphis, Tenn.

When you don't appreciate why someone feels the way they do about certain issues, it tends to make you see them in a negative light.

"We met around midnight in the hotel bar and began talking about our mutual interests in political and moral psychology," Ditto says. "All of us shared a sense that the vicious partisan battles that dominate American politics are caused by not just a clash of moral visions, but by each side's lack of understanding of the other side's honest moral intentions."

The Web-savvy graduate students suggested collecting data on morality through an online survey instead of in-person or phone interviews, which limit the number and diversity of participants.

"By the end of our gathering, we had sketched out a plan to develop a data collection website, and three months later YourMorals.org was up and running," Ditto says.

Visitors to YourMorals are given immediate feedback after each quiz — what the results might say about them and how they compare to others. Most people start out with the moral foundations survey, which asks them to rank the importance of different values, such as caring for the weak, respecting authority and treating everyone equally.

According to Ditto, liberals' moral sense focuses almost exclusively on fairness and compassion for vulnerable people and groups, while conservatives place much more of a premium on group loyalty, traditional authority and spiritual sanctity. Other survey topics include current events, attitudes toward political parties, perceptions of God, satisfaction with life, and government budgets and economics.

The researchers hope to use their findings to foster understanding among people with differing political, moral and religious views.

"When you don't appreciate why someone feels the way they do about certain issues, it tends to make you see them in a negative light," Ditto says.

The current U.S. political climate, with deeply divided opinions about President Obama and the role of government, would seem to prove his point.

—Laura Rico, University Communications