The Origins of the Moral Motives Conference: Public Health Behavior

by John VoiklisJena Barchas-LichtensteinBennett AttawayUduak Grace ThomasNicole LaMarca
Feb 28, 2022


Informal learning institutions--museums, libraries, news organizations, and others--figure prominently in the ecosystem of lifelong learning ( Gupta et al. 2020). These institutions work to inform their audiences about the rapidly emerging scientific consensus on various topics. Often this information invites action, such as avoiding single-use plastic, watering lawns and gardens at dawn or dusk to conserve water, or social distancing during a pandemic. What motivates people to act upon that information (or not)? One answer from social psychological theory is that people are motivated by a desire to protect and care for their family, friends, and perhaps society as a whole--i.e., moral motives.

Knology often partners with informal learning institutions to provide theory-driven answers to such questions. With the Moral Motives Conference, we are taking this a step further by bringing together social science theorists and science communicators from informal learning institutions. The goal is to have them talk directly to each other about what questions matter most for science communication and what answers theoretical research might provide.

The Moral Motives Conference has its origins in NSF-funded research by the PBS NewsHour/Knology Participatory Action Research Lab. It is part of the grant-funded research on how to support the decision-making of news users when reporting on the rapidly emerging scientific consensus about the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we used data collected through the NewsHour/Knology partnership to test for reliable relationships between reported compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and judgements about protecting and/or promoting wellbeing at three social scales: me, those around me, and society as a whole.

The results aligned with theoretical predictions and prompted us to ask whether moral motives -- social obligations, needs, and desires -- might be implicated more broadly in STEM learning, STEM-informed decision-making, and STEM-informed action.

This conference is about exploring how moral motives move people from STEM information learning to STEM-informed action. Public health behavior is one sliver of STEM-informed action and the recommendations we examined represent only a narrow portion of that sliver. In this article, we present our preliminary findings to start a conversation. The range of conference participants should broaden the basis of that conversation, and help us get a sense of the motives (moral or non-moral) for STEM-informed action in a range of STEM topic areas.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

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