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TikTok: Can You Change Your Moral Values?

People can use their imagination to justify bad behavior—or to develop more empathy.

By Ben Rein

Ben Rein, Neuroscience Influencer

"Imagine you’re out in public and you see a parent with a crying baby, but you notice the parent is not paying attention. Instead, they’re playing a game on their phone. On a scale of 1-10, how morally unacceptable would you rate this? OK, now imagine some circumstances that would make that more acceptable. For example, it’s not actually their kid, they’re watching it while the parent is in the bathroom. Or you can think of something else. Now, rate it again on a scale of 1-10. How morally unacceptable is it?"

@dr.brein What is “moral imagination?” _________ This video was supported by the Pulitzer Center through the Truth Decay Grant Initiative, in collaboration with OpenMind Magazine. To read more about this topic, check out the accompanying article featured on OpenMind’s website, found in my bio 🔗. _________ #PulitzerCenter #OpenMind #imagination #morality ##psychology##parenting##truthdecay #greenscreen ♬ original sound - Dr. Ben Rein
Can you give this "bad parent" a pass?

That was an exercise in something called “moral imagination,” when we imagine all sorts of possibilities and circumstances that could explain or resolve an ethical issue.

Moral imagination can be a bad thing in certain cases. For example, you may have just excused some very bad parenting. But what if it was their kid but you convinced yourself that it was fine?

But on the other hand, it can be a very good thing. Moral imagination lets us take ourselves out of the equation and engage in empathy. We can objectively judge what’s right and wrong by opening all possibilities and thinking from new perspectives. And that is incredibly powerful.

As a scientist studying empathy, I believe that it’s incredibly important for making ethical decisions. If our actions can impact others, we should be putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining the impact we might have. It’s an amazing feature of being human that we’re even able to do this, and so we should do everything in our power to make sure we don’t forget to do it. Thank you for your interest, please follow for more cool science.

This video is part of a series of OpenMind essays, podcasts and videos supported by a generous grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.

November 21, 2023

Ben Rein

PhD, is a Stanford-trained neuroscientist who worked in Robert Malenka’s lab. He currently serves as the Chief Science Officer of the Mind Science Foundation.

Editor’s Note

OpenMind is thrilled to be partnering with neuroscientist and science communicator Ben Rein on a series of TikToks as part of our "Misinformation in Mind" project. In this video, Rein looks at the surprising flexibility and malleability of the moral imagination. (You can also view this video on Ben Rein's Instagram.)

This TikTok accompanies a related essay on the Moral Imagination by essayist D. Watkins, who takes a hard look at the moral contortions required to survive his childhood in East Baltimore. Actions that seemed heroic to him in his youth look very different from an adult perspective. But Watkins looks back on his young self with compassion and understanding—essential attributes for understanding the moral complexities that we all face, and for cultivating genuine empathy that helps lead people toward kinder and more generous behavior.

Our misinformation series includes five other essays, along with related podcasts and videos on topics ranging from the myths of trans science to the elusive nature of expertise. It's all part of OpenMind's six-part "Misinformation in Mind" project, supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.

Corey S. Powell and Pamela Weintraub, co-editors, OpenMind

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