Editor's Pick - October 2023



Mental fatigue increases utilitarian moral judgments during COVID-19
Mufan Zheng, Hongyi Li, and Bicheng Gao, (Wuhan University), 2023, 51(3), e12004



Many of us have read and listened to an enormous amount of information about many aspects of Covid-19, but the article I have chosen for this month highlighted an important research topic that I had not considered before. The authors looked at the effects of mental fatigue on moral judgments and the moderating effects of social support. I was particularly interested in the effects of mental fatigue on the moral judgments of decision makers, as the resulting decisions can  have ramifications for all of us. 

Zheng, Li, and Gao, all from Wuhan University, collected data from over 4000 people using questionnaires. The researchers measured mental fatigue, specifically emotional stress, psychological burn-out, and fatigue. Moral judgment was measured by having participants consider moral dilemmas which were based on pandemic scenarios, such as choosing between “the moral principle of not harming the life or health of patients and saving more people” and between “the principle of safeguarding citizens’ right of learning truth and economic/stability/personal development.” All the moral dilemmas are included in the article’s appendix, and they make for interesting reading. The authors also measured social support levels, including financial, material, physical, and emotional support.

The results showed that mental fatigue was positively related to utilitarian moral judgment, and social support modified this relationship. When participants experienced mental fatigue and low social support they were more likely to make utilitarian moral judgments than those people who had high social support. This means that people may make decisions that focus on outcomes and ignore moral principles.

This study added to the literature by addressing the problem of stress in an ongoing, long-term emergency, and looking at the effect of mental fatigue, rather than just cognitive load, on decision making. The dilemmas participants looked at were real-life dilemmas such as those people actually faced (and may still face) due to the pandemic rather than the classical sacrificial dilemmas. I also think it is noteworthy the researchers included social support as a moderator in this era due to the unprecedented lockdowns many governments implemented in their countries.

Their conclusions are especially important to note as we prepare for the future. The effect of long-term mental fatigue on policy makers may result in less empathetic decisions that effect all of us. I do hope the researchers’ call for further investigate of this topic is answered by others as there are important implications for not only healthcare but all areas where decisions are made under stressful conditions. My main takeaway from this study was the reminder that we are all human, and decision makers in organisations and governments are as susceptible to stress as the rest of us, and we need to plan for and safeguard against any undesirable effects this could cause.  

Helen Innes | Copyeditor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

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