Scientists at Penn State University have created new ways to test empathy and moral intuitions. They found that certain situations could trigger a particular response even after being told to ignore the situation.

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To test moral intuitiveness, participants were shown two words on a computer screen. The first flashed for about 100 milliseconds, which is as long as the blink of an eye, then the second word appeared. Subjects were told to ignore the first word and to make a moral judgement about whether the second was wrong, neutral or somewhere in the middle. They had to judge in under a second.

"In the experiment, you're being told to respond as fast as possible and not to respond to that first word," said study co-author and Penn State Assistant Professor of Psychology Daryl Cameron in a statement. "What we see, reliably across all the experiments, is that people show a priming effect. The moral content of that first word biases your judgment about the morality of the second word. So, if you see the word, 'murder' flash up really quickly, even though you're told to ignore it, you're then much more likely to mistakenly judge the target word — for example, 'baking' — as morally wrong. That affective intuition you have that a word is wrong bleeds over and you make a mistake in judgment."

The team tested empathy using a similar experiment but using photos instead. Showing participants a photo that looked painful first, like a needle going through a hand, influenced their views on the second photo.

This testing can be used to work with criminals and potentially sociopaths, the researchers believe.

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"In the case of criminal psychopaths, these are people who can tell you exactly what is morally right and wrong, but they often appear to lack these emotional intuitions that sustain ethically appropriate behavior," said Cameron. "So, perhaps in the future, we can find a way to capture these immediate gut reactions and that could, in turn, help us learn how to predict who is going to behave in moral situations."

Morality has been a popular topic lately as debates about whether a morality pill is ethical makes the rounds online. The pill is not yet developed, however scienctists are currently working on it.

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