Using Machine Learning to Generate Novel Hypotheses: Increasing Optimism About COVID-19 Makes People Less Willing to Justify Unethical Behaviors
How can we nudge people to not engage in unethical behaviors, such as hoarding and violating social-distancing guidelines, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Because past research on antecedents of unethical behavior has not provided a clear answer, we turned to machine learning to generate novel hypotheses. We trained a deep-learning model to predict whether or not World Values Survey respondents perceived unethical behaviors as justifiable, on the basis of their responses to 708 other items. The model identified optimism about the future of humanity as one of the top predictors of unethicality. A preregistered correlational study (N = 218 U.S. residents) conceptually replicated this finding. A preregistered experiment (N = 294 U.S. residents) provided causal support: Participants who read a scenario conveying optimism about the COVID-19 pandemic were less willing to justify hoarding and violating social-distancing guidelines than participants who read a scenario conveying pessimism. The findings suggest that optimism can help reduce unethicality, and they document the utility of machine-learning methods for generating novel hypotheses.