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'Opacity of Mind' impacts indigenous Fijians' moral reasoning, study finds

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Fiji’s indigenous iTaukei population view morals related to intent and accident differently from those in the West, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Brunel University London and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, found that indigenous Fijians judge one’s actions more harshly than they judged one’s intent, in contrast to the Indo-Fijian and North American control groups.

This means, for example, that taking someone’s iPhone by accident is judged more harshly than intending to steal someone’s iPhone, but failing.

“In the West, we see intent as central to moral reasoning,” said Dr Aiyana Willard, a lecturer in psychology at Brunel’s Centre for Culture and Evolution. “An accidental theft is not seen as immoral in the same way that an intentional theft would be.”

“Unlike the iTaukei Fijian participants, the North American and Indo-Fijian samples saw accidents as less bad than intentional acts but also less bad than hindered acts – for example, wanting to steal, but being unable to do so.”

The research – published in the journal Cognition – gave 931 participants (151 iTaukei Fijians, 219 Indo-Fijians and 561 North Americans) a series of four scenarios, and asked six moral-judgement questions after each.

It found that by comparison to North Americans and Indo-Fijians – Fiji’s Indian diaspora population – iTaukei Fijians placed more emphasis on outcome than intent.

Fiji was specifically chosen for the study as the researchers were interested in understanding more about the real-world effects of ‘Opacity of Mind’ – a phenomenon commonly seen in the iTaukei population, but not the Indo-Fijian.

“Opacity of Mind is the belief that it is difficult or impossible to know what goes on in another person’s mind – the mind is seen as an opaque container and the contents cannot be known,” said Dr Willard, who completed the research alongside Dr Rita McNamara of the Victoria University of Wellington. 

“This belief is found in peoples throughout the South Pacific, in some parts of Central America and in the Arctic.”

 “One of the consequences of Opacity of Mind beliefs is that people’s actions should be judged based on the outcome of those actions, rather than the intent, because we can never really be certain about the intent.

“These Fijian groups are a good comparison, as previous research has shown that iTaukei Fijians have Opacity of Mind, and Indo-Fijians do not. This helps us to show that the effects we see are not caused by some other factors in Fiji, such as how the government or legal system works.”

For more information on Brunel’s Centre for Culture and Evolution, please visit www.brunel.ac.uk/research/Centres/Centre-for-Culture-and-Evolution

The paper – Weighing outcome vs intent across societies : How cultural models of mind shape moral reasoning – is available through the journal Cognition

Reported by:

Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268965
tim.pilgrim@brunel.ac.uk