New study on choice blindness in moral positions

Change blind­ness is the phe­nomenon whereby peo­ple fail to no­tice changes in scenery and what­not if they’re not di­rected to pay at­ten­tion to it. There are countless videos on­line demon­strat­ing this effect (one of my fa­vorites here, by Richard Wise­man).

One of the most au­da­cious and fa­mous ex­per­i­ments is known in­for­mally as “the door study”: an ex­per­i­menter asks a passerby for di­rec­tions, but is in­ter­rupted by a pair of con­struc­tion work­ers car­ry­ing an un­hinged door, con­ceal­ing an­other per­son whom re­places the ex­per­i­menter as the door passes. In­cred­ibly, the per­son giv­ing di­rec­tions rarely no­tices they are now talk­ing to a com­pletely differ­ent per­son. This effect was re­pro­duced by Der­ren Brown on Bri­tish TV (here’s an am­a­teur re-en­act­ment).

Sub­se­quently a pair of Swedish re­searchers fa­mil­iar with some sleight-of-hand magic con­ceived a new twist on this line of re­search, ar­guably even more au­da­cious: have par­ti­ci­pants make a choice and quietly swap that choice with some­thing else. Peo­ple not only fail to no­tice the change, but con­fab­u­late rea­sons why they had preferred the coun­terfeit choice (video here). They called their new paradigm “Choice Blind­ness”.

Just re­cently the same Swedish re­searchers pub­lished a new study that is even more shock­ing. Rather than demon­strat­ing choice blind­ness by hav­ing par­ti­ci­pants choose be­tween two pho­tographs, they demon­strated the same effect with moral propo­si­tions. Par­ti­ci­pants com­pleted a sur­vey ask­ing them to agree or dis­agree with state­ments such as “large scale gov­ern­men­tal surveillance of e-mail and In­ter­net traf­fic ought to be for­bid­den as a means to com­bat in­ter­na­tional crime and ter­ror­ism”. When they re­viewed their copy of the sur­vey their re­sponses had been covertly changed, but 69% failed to no­tice at least one of two changes, and when asked to ex­plain their an­swers 53% ar­gued in fa­vor of what they falsely be­lieved was their origi­nal choice, when they had pre­vi­ously in­di­cated the op­po­site moral po­si­tion (study here, video here).