The Psychology of the Unthinkable

Remember the movie Indecent Proposal?

Imagine the following scenario: A billionaire approaches a husband offering to pay him a $1,000,00 to sleep with his wife. The husband responds, "Let me think about that for a second." He thinks. And then says, "No."

What is your opinion of the husband, morally speaking?

If you are like most, your opinion is not very good. Why? Well, to use a phrase from the moral psychology literature, the husband had "one thought too many."

This "one thought too many" phenomenon is called the mere contemplation effect. The mere contemplation effect is the observation that there are times when, to merely contemplate a decision, marks you as morally suspect. That is, a virtuous husband, in the scenario above, would have immediately rejected the offer. He wouldn't even need to "think about it."

Scenarios like this and the mere contemplation effect come from some fascinating research on taboo psychology, the psychology of the unthinkable. A great place to start in this literature is Philip Tetlock's research (start with: Tetlock, et al. "The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals." JPSP, 78, 853-870.)

I cite Tetlock's research to highlight that we expect moral judgments to be instinctive and reflexive. We really don't expect them to be the product of rational reflection. In fact, to even begin the process of reflection, in many cases, marks you as morally corrupt. This is the psychology of taboo.

If, for instance, someone has a taboo involving something like homosexuality, when a conversation partner "merely contemplates" that homosexuality might not be a sin this marks that person as a dubious moral guide. In this, taboo psychology research is akin to the moral dumbfounding research in that it illustrates that our morality might be less rational than what we first might have guessed.

If you've been following me since my Moral Dumbfounding post (see "Eating your dog and having sex with chickens") I hope you are beginning to see the theme in my last few posts. Namely, that human moral judgment not simply the product of, say, "reading the Bible." Emotions and other mental biases all cook together in an elaborate stew to create our moral judgments. And taboo psychology is a part of that mix. We don't just read the Bible. We interact with it in ways we are often unaware of. This is not to say that our moral decisions are irredeemably corrupted. But it is to say that most people are simply unaware of how little insight they have as to their own inner workings when they engage in morality debates.

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6 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Unthinkable”

  1. Ricard,
    I just wanted to say thanks so much for your discussion starter on GKB's blog. Good stuff.

  2. Psychology and Christianity don’t mix; your assertion is based upon an imposed socio-morality. A person who stops and considers a question posed using your example of Indecent Proposal does not demonstrate a lack of morality rather demonstrates cognitive process. To suggest other is purely judgment on your part, which is psychological abusive.
    People need to rid themselves of societies morality which is primarily built upon Christendom and realise use their inherent ethics.

  3. Lisa,
    Let me get your opinion about something.

    Do you think Jesus was abusive?

    If so, then we probably differ at some deep philosophical level since moral exemplars such as Gandhi looked up to Jesus.

    If not, then there is room and hope for followers of Jesus, you don't have to call them Christians if you don't want to, to be loving, kind, charitable, and moral persons.

  4. I believe the concept of Jesus is healthy – ie: love one another as I have loved you.
    However, I don’t believe the religious construct is healthy. Humans instinctually are communal as such, generally speaking demonstrates the ability to live harmoniously, factor in religious fanaticism which stems from greed and we have the societal structure we now contend with. A world gone mad….

  5. Lisa,
    I'm largely in agreement with you. To be autobiographical, I'm a person who tries to follow Jesus. And, if a person reads the gospels, you find Jesus being very suspicious about religious organizations, religious hypocrisy, and public displays of religiosity. Jesus was particularly against using religion as a form of power and oppression. So, as a follower of Jesus, I believe all that.

    Thus, this makes me a "Christian," but a very different kind of Christian than the ones you see on the Religious Right. In short, you might not believe in God or Jesus (but you might), but I bet if we compared how we believe people should be treated in this world we would find a lot to agree on.

  6. Richard,

    You follow a construct of a perception of what a Messiah might have been like during a life existence. Granted that is your prerogative and I’m not here to debate the historicity of Jesus, I’ve engaged in this debate ad nauseam. It is probably true, you and I striped of philosophical/mythological ideology would share a common drive for humanity.


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