Our opinions are affected by what our eyes are focusing on in the same instant we make moral decisions. Researchers at Lund University and other institutions have managed to influence people's responses to questions such as "is murder defensible?" by tracking their eye movements. When the participants had looked at a randomly pre-selected response long enough, they were asked for an immediate answer. Fifty-eight per cent chose that answer as their moral position.
The study shows that our moral decisions can be influenced by what we are looking at when we make the decision. Using a new experimental method, the researchers tracked participants' eye movements and demanded an answer when their eye rested on a randomly pre-selected answer.
The researchers, from the Division of Cognitive Science at Lund University, University College London (UCL) and the University of California, Merced, studied in real time how people deliberate with themselves in difficult moral dilemmas. The participants had no idea that the researchers were carefully monitoring how their gaze moved in order to demand an answer at the right moment. The results showed that the responses were systematically influenced by what the eye saw at the moment an answer was demanded.
"In this study we have seen that timing has a strong influence on the moral choices we make. The processes that lead to a moral decision are reflected in our gaze. However, what our eyes rest on when a decision is taken also affects our choice", explained Philip Pärnamets, cognitive scientist at Lund University and one of the authors of the study.
The study is the first to demonstrate a connection between gaze and moral choices, but it is based on previous studies which have shown that for simpler choices, such as choosing between two dishes on a menu, our eye movements say what we will eat for dinner before we have really decided.
"What is new is that we have demonstrated that if eye movements are tracked moment by moment, it is possible to track the person's decision-making process and steer it in a pre-determined direction", said Petter Johansson, a reader in cognitive science at Lund University.
The thought process needed to reach a moral position is thus interlinked with the process of viewing the world.
"Today, all sorts of sensors are built into mobile phones, and they can even track your eye movements", said Daniel Richardson, director of the Eye Think Lab at UCL. "By documenting small changes in our behaviour, our mobiles could help us reach a decision in a way that has not been possible before."