Imagine you heard a story about someone who broke social isolation guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic and went out with his girlfriend. The person telling the story says, "I think what he did was wrong because better safe than sorry." According to new research I conducted with my colleagues, that conclusion would strike people as a pretty compelling condemnation because it made good use of a "proverb."

Proverbs are familiar statements that express well-known truths, social norms, or moral concerns in a metaphorical and easy-to-memorize structure. Reflecting the collective wisdom of social groups, they serve as potent tools in oral communication, political rhetoric, advertising slogans, and any context where persuasion is paramount.

Because proverbs are so easy to understand and efficiently communicate moral norms, my colleagues Dr. Mário Ferreira, Dr. Bruno Kluwe-Shiavon, and I thought that they might be especially good at shaping people's initial impressions of moral scenarios, as well as their more careful, thought-out judgments.

To test the unique benefits of proverbs, we compared them to statements that make the same point but without leaning on popular proverbs. For instance, instead of "better safe than sorry," are people just as affected by the statement "it is better to anticipate and prevent problems than to act after they happen"?

We surveyed 300 people and asked them each to evaluate 10 scenarios in which a person behaves in a morally dubious way. In each case, the scenario included a statement either condoning or condemning the behavior. Sometimes the statement used a proverb and other times it expressed the same idea without a proverb.

We asked everyone how much they agreed with the statement condoning or condemning the behavior. In general, people agreed more when the statement expressed the judgment people typically make. For example, since most people think it's wrong to break public health guidelines, people agree more with a statement condemning indiscretion than condoning it.

But we wanted to see whether people agreed more when the statement included a proverb. If the statement already takes an unusual stance on the behavior (i.e., condoning a behavior most people condemn), the proverbs didn't make them any less disagreeable. However, if the statement took the typical perspective on the behavior—particularly when they condemned a behavior that most people condemn—using a proverb made people agree with the statement even more.

We were also interested in how stable people's moral judgments were, so we asked them to reconsider their initial responses regarding how much they agreed with each statement. Our findings revealed that they were notably less likely to revise their responses, holding firm to their initial judgment when the statements included proverbs.

Our results suggest that people become more convinced about what they already think is right and wrong in the presence of popular sayings, leading to more stable judgments that are less likely to be reconsidered. However, our findings also highlight how well-established moral beliefs don't get rewritten just because someone uses a proverb to challenge moral norms.

But why do proverbs help entrench existing moral judgments? The answer lies partly in the feeling of truth they evoke, or "truthiness." We found an association between the truthiness of proverbs and agreement with judgments that condemn or condone immoral acts using those proverbs.  Truthiness was also associated with increased confidence when proverbs were used to condemn immoral acts and decreased confidence when used to condone them, suggesting that the truthiness of proverbs can increase or reduce participants' confidence in their previous beliefs concerning the immoral nature of the acts.

In sum, we found that sayings can mold people's perceptions of others' actions, nudging them towards certain moral verdicts. Expressions of moral judgment permeate many aspects of real-world interactions. Intriguingly, proverbs have a long history in language, and our research shows that these old-fashioned ways of discussing morality can be amplified by modern forms of social interaction, increasing polarization and rigidity in social debate.

For Further Reading

Seruti, A., Ferreira, M. B., & Kluwe-Schiavon, B. (2024). Popular saying and moral judgment: The influence of proverbs on moral intuition. Social Cognition, 42(1), 5-26.

Reis, J., Ferreira, M. B., Mata, A., Seruti, A., & Garcia-Marques, L. (2023). Anchoring in a social context: How the possibility of being misinformed by others impacts one's judgment. Social Cognition, 41(1), 67-87.

Thompson, V. A., Turner, J. A. P., & Pennycook, G. (2011). Intuition, reason, and metacognition. Cognitive Psychology, 63(3), 107-140.

Amanda Seruti is a researcher at the Institute of Applied Psychology (ISPA), in Portugal.
She studies moral judgment, misinformation, belief bias, and false memory in collaboration with the William James Center for Research (ISPA) and the Center for Research in Psychological Sciences (University of Lisbon). She is particularly interested in social perception, meta-perception, social influence, and political polarization.