Guest post by Mario Attie highlighting new research by Attie and Knobe as part of the x-phi replicability project
Consider the following case:
Phil has recently joined a French class. He is deeply committed to the class and to what they are trying to achieve, though he tends to put off reading the classic French texts that the teacher insists they all study. He finds them a bit of a drag.
This evening he has resolved to stay home and read some of the texts. But some friends call up and try to persuade him to come out with them. If things go as normal they’ll have a pizza and watch a movie. He thinks it would be better to stay home and read as planned, but he gives in and goes with them.
Would you say that Phil displays weakness of will in going with his friends? Now consider the following variation of the story:
This evening he has resolved to stay home and read some of the texts. But some friends call up and try to persuade him to come out with them. If things go as normal they’ll hang out at the mall, have rather too many beers, and pick fights with some of the local immigrant kids. He thinks it would be better to stay home and read as planned, but he gives in and goes with them.
If you are like the participants in May and Holton study, you feel somewhat more inclined to attribute weakness of will in the latter case. This is evidence that factors other than acting against one’s judgments (or resolutions) of what is best for one to do can have an influence on attributions of weakness of will.
May and Holton showed that moral judgment has such an impact. They found that the moral valence of the action has an effect on whether people think it counted as weak-willed. When the agent decided to forgo his original intention to perform a morally bad action (pick a fight with the local immigrant kids) participants were more willing to attribute weakness of will than in morally permissible actions (watch a movie with his friends). Surprisingly, the moral valence of the intention had no effect, a finding that it is somehow inconsistent with the idea that moral judgment has a direct influence on weakness of will attributions.
As part of the Xphi Replicability Project, Josh Knobe and I conducted a direct replication of May and Holton original study. The results not only replicated the original effect of action valence, but also showed a corresponding effect of intention valence. Participants were less inclined to attribute weakness of will when the intention that agents didn’t act on was morally wrong (stay home to study Nazi texts) than when it was morally permissible (stay home to study French texts).
The results show a more consistent picture of the impact of morality on weakness of will attributions. They also show the value of conducting adequately powered replications of influential findings. We sometimes give way to our theorizing before stopping to ask whether the effect (or lack thereof) is not merely a result of small sample sizes. This was the case here: intention valence does have the effect we would expect to find if moral judgment influences weakness of will attributions.