Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Vividness of a Moral Dilemma


Moral dilemmas strike many poses - the two men battling for the heart and soul of America in last night's US Presidential debate both face a constant moral dilemma, although you don't hear them talk about it much: take the lobbyists funding and pay the piper down the track, or lose the election and let the other (bad) guy in.

This is probably the single greatest moral issue facing American politics, but we're much more likely to hear about the strength or otherwise of some Senator's morals, and his ability to keep his pants on with a pretty intern. There are many causes of this colour blindness, not least the power of the lobbyists money and the public thirst for scandal; but some recent research puts the latter in an interesting light.

It seems that people are more likely to make an emotional rather than a rational response to a moral dilemma, if that dilemma brings a particularly vivid image to mind. If the moral dilemma has the consequences of a bloody death, then the brain will react emotionally - that's just wrong!

Take away the vivid picture, and the brain is more likely to react rationally, and use a cost-benefit analysis to decide the dilemma. NPR's Shankar Vedantam gives the detail of Joshua Greene and Elinor Amit's research, recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

I think we can see how the mental image of the Senator with his pants down is rather more vivid than the dry consequences of lobbyists funding politicians. Or is it? Reframe the lobbying and funding issue around its consequences - big tobacco and dying of lung cancer - and it's possible that a lot more heat could be put into this issue.

It's a lesson that debating politicians can learn - tell a story with a vivid mental picture and you'll get the gut response. If that's not what you want, then tell a dry story about numbers and outcomes, and you'll get the cost-benefit response - unfortunately, dry stories are much more likely to get ignored than blood and thunder dilemmas.

Is this what drives politics to the emotionally-charged culture wars, and allows the real issues to be pushed to one side?

I don't know, I'm not a politician, I'm a thriller writer who specialises in stories with a moral dilemma and a twist - but I do know that from now on they will always bring to mind a vivid image.

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