The second study conducted by Page, Bonnie, Dan and Kelsey involved the effects of priming upon torture attitudes. Specifically, the students were struck by the way media outlets invoked different images when talking about the torture debates. Those images activated very different moral impulses.
Our innate moral psychology is a mixed bag. One the one had we have a great capacity for empathy, sympathy and compassion. For example, Adam Smith built his theory of human morality in The Theory of Moral Sentiments around these emotions. On the other hand we have a great capacity for that is called moralistic aggression, the impulse for revenge to "even the score." Moralistic aggression sits behind the notion of lex talionis, the ancient rule of "an eye for an eye."
Both aspects of human moral psychology were (and still are) in play during the torture debates. On the one hand, media pundits and politicians would invoke 9/11. This would prime moralistic aggression, the impulse to repay the terrorists for killing Americans. Moralistic aggression prompts a pro-torture sentiment.
On the other hand, the events of Abu Ghraib were still fresh in our minds. These horrific images prompted empathy and sympathy. Pundits and politicians pushing for investigations of Bush/Cheney tended to prime viewers and listeners with images of Abu Ghraib rather than 9/11.
The students suspected that the media and the politicians were messing around with our moral sentiments, pitting empathy against moralistic aggression depending upon how the torture debate was framed. The students wondered if these various ways of framing the debate were, indeed, effective.
In the study the students had two groups of participants rate the Pew Research question on torture (i.e., Could torture often, sometimes, rarely or never be justified?). But before the two groups rated the question they were exposed to one of two different "frames." The template for each frame was as follows:
Due to current events, there has been increased attention put on the use of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques and its place in US life and policy. Obviously, torture is a controversial subject and evokes strong emotions on both sides of the argument. For instance, we all remember the events of ___ which affect how Americans view the debate. The haunting images from ___ are still fresh in our minds:This frame was then followed by two pictures. In the 9/11 group the blanks in the frame above was filled in with "9/11." Then these two pictures followed:
These images were selected by the students to prompt moralistic aggression, a desire to get even with the terrorists.
The second group read "Abu Ghraib" in the blanks for the frame. This group then saw these two images:
These images were selected to prompt empathy.
The research question was simple: Would attitudes about torture be affected by how one morally framed the debate? Would an empathy-frame reduce torture endorsement? Would a moralistic aggression-frame promote torture endorsement?
The results confirmed these expectations. Participants with the empathy-frame (Abu Ghraib images) had significantly lower pro-torture ratings relative to the moralistic aggression-frame (9/11 images).
These results are interesting on three counts:
First, how one frames the torture debate affects attitudes and opinions. Beware of how the media is manipulating you! And it's also not surprising that Dick Cheney keeps talking about 9/11 when the issue of torture comes up.
Second, both responses--empathy versus moralistic aggression--seem moral and right to us. Which is scary given that these impulses go in opposite directions. No wonder the debate is full of both conflict and righteous indignation.
Finally, what would Jesus do? Frame the debate with empathy or moralistic aggression?