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Thursday, January 11, 2024

The paucity of morality in everyday talk

Atari, M., Mehl, M.R., Graham, J. et al. 
Sci Rep 13, 5967 (2023).


Given its centrality in scholarly and popular discourse, morality should be expected to figure prominently in everyday talk. We test this expectation by examining the frequency of moral content in three contexts, using three methods: (a) Participants’ subjective frequency estimates (N = 581); (b) Human content analysis of unobtrusively recorded in-person interactions (N = 542 participants; n = 50,961 observations); and (c) Computational content analysis of Facebook posts (N = 3822 participants; n = 111,886 observations). In their self-reports, participants estimated that 21.5% of their interactions touched on morality (Study 1), but objectively, only 4.7% of recorded conversational samples (Study 2) and 2.2% of Facebook posts (Study 3) contained moral content. Collectively, these findings suggest that morality may be far less prominent in everyday life than scholarly and popular discourse, and laypeople, presume.


Overall, the findings of this research suggest that morality is far less prevalent in everyday talk than previously assumed. While participants overestimated the frequency of moral content in their self-reports, objective measures revealed that moral topics are relatively rare in everyday conversations and online interactions.

The study's authors propose several explanations for this discrepancy between subjective and objective findings. One possibility is that people tend to remember instances of moral talk more vividly than other types of conversation. Additionally, people may be more likely to report that they engage in moral talk when they are explicitly asked about it, as this may make them more aware of their own moral values.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, the findings of this research suggest that morality is not as prominent in everyday life as is often assumed. This may have implications for how we understand and promote moral behavior in society.