In a recent study, researchers from University of California at Santa Barbara hypothesized that science, as a notion, “contains in it the broader moral vision of a society in which rationality is used for the mutual benefit of all.” As such, it “facilitates moral and prosocial judgments and behaviors.”

Based on this premise, the researchers predicted that simply thinking about science leads individuals to behave in a more moral way. To investigate this potential link between exposure to science and moral behavior, the researchers set up four experiments.


In their first experiment, the researchers tested the relationship between exposure to science and the likelihood of enforcing moral norms by requesting participants to read a date rape vignette. After reading the story, the 48 undergraduate participants judged the 'wrongness' of forcing non-consensual sex on another by using a scale from one (completely right) to 100 (completely wrong). Additionally, all participants listed their field of study and then answered the question “How much do you believe in science?” using a scale from one (not at all) to seven (very much).

In three other experiments, each of which involved a different set of student participants, the researchers first manipulated participants’ thoughts about science and then presented them with ‘moral’ tasks. The researchers used a simple word task to influence the students' thoughts; but first, participants were randomly assigned to either the science or control group. Participants had to choose four out of five scrambled words in order to form a complete sentence. Those in the control group completed sentence scrambles that contained only neutral words (e.g., “shoes give replace old the”; “more paper it once do”). Meanwhile, those in the science group encountered sentences containing key words that suggested what the researchers considered to be "lay notions of science": logical, hypothesis, laboratory, scientists, and theory.

After setting up the two groups, for the second experiment, all participants read the same vignette about date rape and completed the same moral judgment rating used in the first experiment. In the third experiment, participants indicated how likely they would be to take part in different activities during the following month, including prosocial events (such as giving blood or volunteering) and simple distractions (such as attending a party or seeing a movie). In the last experiment, participants were given five one-dollar bills, and then were told their job was to divide the money between themselves and an anonymous other participant.


The researchers found individuals leaned further in the direction of morality when first primed with science either by natural exposure (e.g., they were currently majoring in a field of science) or by thought manipulation before the experiment. In the first two experiments, those primed with science responded more severely than did the control group to the moral transgression of date rape. In the third experiment, those primed with science reported greater prosocial intentions than control group participants, and in the final experiment, science group participants allocated less money to themselves than did members of the control group.

“Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior,” the authors concluded in their paper.

Assuming you were to accept this outcome as fact, you might still ask if this truth discovered in a petri dish, so to speak, is supported by real world facts. For instance, many ‘lay’ people would argue scientists do not always consider the consequence of their work and so science might be seen as leading to less moral behavior. One example of this might be Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and head of the Manhattan Project's secret weapons laboratory that would design and construct the atomic bomb. He famously said to President Truman in the months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Is Oppenheimer’s work (and later remorse) an instance of science facilitating moral behavior... or obstructing it?

Source: Ma-Kellams C, Blascovich J. Does “Science” Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior. PLOS One. 2013.