After writing my last post about the reliability of jury trials, I got to thinking about how we judge others. There can be no doubt that we do all judge, even if it is only internally, but how reliable are our judgements? Even when it comes down to moral judgements, although we often think that right is right and wrong is wrong, the truth might be somewhat murkier.
There have been a number of studies of how people judge morality and many have found that our judgements can be based on entirely irrelevant factors. One study at the University of Chicago showed that shutting your eyes whilst listening to descriptions of typically moral or immoral scenes intensifies our judgements. Where a small proportion of people will judge a scene to be immoral with their eyes open, a much larger proportion of people will judge it to be immoral if they have their eyes closed.
Our judgements can be similarly influenced by our surroundings. A study from the University of Toronto found that people who had just washed their hands were more likely to view controversial issues (such as recreational drugs) as immoral than people who hadn’t. And a study reported in ‘Personality and Social Pathology Bulletin’ found that people asked to make a moral judgement about a hypothetical situation whilst sitting near to a smelly bin were more likely to judge the situation to be immoral that those who sat in a pleasant smelling environment.
Extreme moral judgements, such as whether serious crimes are right or wrong, are unlikely to be affected by factors such as these, but if our morality is flexible at all, we have to question how reliable our judgements of others are and how this affects the validity of jury trials for minor or petty crime.