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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Using Machine Learning to Generate Novel Hypotheses: Increasing Optimism About COVID-19 Makes People Less Willing to Justify Unethical Behaviors

Sheetal A, Feng Z, Savani K. 
Psychological Science. 2020;31(10):


How can we nudge people to not engage in unethical behaviors, such as hoarding and violating social-distancing guidelines, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Because past research on antecedents of unethical behavior has not provided a clear answer, we turned to machine learning to generate novel hypotheses. We trained a deep-learning model to predict whether or not World Values Survey respondents perceived unethical behaviors as justifiable, on the basis of their responses to 708 other items. The model identified optimism about the future of humanity as one of the top predictors of unethicality. A preregistered correlational study (N = 218 U.S. residents) conceptually replicated this finding. A preregistered experiment (N = 294 U.S. residents) provided causal support: Participants who read a scenario conveying optimism about the COVID-19 pandemic were less willing to justify hoarding and violating social-distancing guidelines than participants who read a scenario conveying pessimism. The findings suggest that optimism can help reduce unethicality, and they document the utility of machine-learning methods for generating novel hypotheses.

Here is how the research article begins:

Unethical behaviors can have substantial consequences in times of crisis. For example, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people hoarded face masks and hand sanitizers; this hoarding deprived those who needed protective supplies most (e.g., medical workers and the elderly) and, therefore, put them at risk. Despite escalating deaths, more than 50,000 people were caught violating quarantine orders in Italy, putting themselves and others at risk. Governments covered up the scale of the pandemic in that country, thereby allowing the infection to spread in an uncontrolled manner. Thus, understanding antecedents of unethical behavior and identifying nudges to reduce unethical behaviors are particularly important in times of crisis.

Here is part of the Discussion

We formulated a novel hypothesis—that optimism reduces unethicality—on the basis of the deep-learning model’s finding that whether people think that the future of humanity is bleak or bright is a strong predictor of unethicality. This variable was not flagged as a top predictor either by the correlational analysis or by the lasso regression. Consistent with this idea, the results of a correlational study showed that people higher on dispositional optimism were less willing to engage in unethical behaviors. A following experiment found that increasing participants’ optimism about the COVID-19 epidemic reduced the extent to which they justified unethical behaviors related to the epidemic. The behavioral studies were conducted with U.S. American participants; thus, the cultural generalizability of the present findings is unclear. Future research needs to test whether optimism reduces unethical behavior in other cultural contexts.