Your eyes may reveal your morality

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The eyes may be the window to the soul, but they can also lead you down a path of doom and immorality. Well, kind of. It turns out your gaze can manipulate you into making morality-based decisions that you might not otherwise make, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


In the study, researchers instructed participants to sit in front of a computer and listen to a morality-based statement—for example, Murder is sometimes justifiable. Then, two alternative statements appeared on the computer screen. On one side it read Murder is sometimes justifiable and on the other, Murder is never justifiable. Using special technology, researchers tracked the participants’ eyes, and were able to gauge the decision they would make based on how long they looked at each option—eye movement basically revealed their decision-making process.

After participants looked at one alternative option for 750 millisecond and the other for 250 seconds, the researchers ended the deliberation period and made the participants decide. Participants more often—nearly 60 percent of the time—chose the option they had looked at longer.

In another part of the study, the researchers attempted to use this information to influence the decision-making of a set of new participants facing the same moral quandary. This time, the researchers manipulated the participants into looking at one alternative for a longer period of time—and participants chose the randomly predetermined target 58.2 percent of the time.

"People often assume that their moral opinions are stable preferences that already exist in their hearts and minds," says Michael Spivey, co-author of the study and professor of cognitive and information sciences at University of California-Merced, "but we hypothesized that many of your moral decisions may arise 'on the fly' as a result of how you look at and interact with your environment."

While it's probably a stretch to claim that the basis of human morality is founded on sheer timing and eye movement, you may want to think twice the next time you make that split-second moral decision between Half Baked and Cherry Garcia Ben & Jerry's. Give it time, folks.