Whether buying stocks, choosing a restaurant or deciding how best to buck for a promotion, the decisions we make on moral grounds tend to arrive faster than those made for purely pragmatic reasons, suggest a new set of studies.

Researchers at schools including New York University and the University of Toronto looked at how decision-making changes when framed in moral versus practical contexts.

The results, which appeared Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that decisions with a "moral underpinning" are made more quickly and are also more extreme.


Research suggests we are quick to apply our moral judgments to others, but flexible on whether morals apply to given situations. (iStock)

"Once an issue is declared moral, people’s judgments about that issue become more extreme, and they are more likely to apply those judgments to others," said Ingrid Haas, a co-author of the report and an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a statement.

Participants were asked to pass judgment on over 100 possible actions — first whether it is "morally right" to flatter a boss with a lie, for example. They were then asked if taking that same action would be good or bad for them personally, and whether others should follow suit.

Other questions touched on topics including voting, saving for retirement and dating co-workers.

The studies also suggest we are flexible on whether a decision should be made on moral grounds.

Subjects responded differently to the same questions depending whether it was framed as a moral or practical matter. This suggests we may be "malleable" on how we view such decisions, say researchers.

"We make and see decisions quite differently if they are made with a morality frame," said co-author Jay Van Bavel, an assistant professor at New York University.

"But, despite these differences, there is now evidence that we can shift judgments so they are based on practical, rather than moral, considerations — and vice versa."