Image of the Smartphone Experience-Sampling Signal (SMS linking to smartphone survey). Courtesy of Wilhelm Hofmann.

Just when it seems there’s a mobile app for just about everything, psychologists have shown there’s room for one more: they are using smartphones to help them better understand the dynamics of moral and immoral behavior out in the community.

A team of U.S., German and Dutch researchers has used Apple iOS, Google Android and other mobile devices to assess real-life situations. Their goal is to better understand how our moral sense develops and moral judgments are made as well as the differences in moral experiences among various individuals, groups and cultures.

The researchers selected more than 1,200 smartphone users—ages 18 to 68—in the U.S. and Canada and texted them five times a day with requests to report whether they had committed, were the target of, witnessed or learned about a moral or immoral act within the past hour. Each text message came embedded with a link that took participants to an online survey displayed on the smartphone’s browser. There, they rated—on a scale of zero to five—specific moral emotions they might be feeling, such as guilt or disgust, as well as their level of happiness and sense of purpose at that moment. Participants also briefly described each event in a text they sent back to the researchers.

Underlying all of this was an app the researchers developed to sign up participants, send texts to them at random intervals and manage the more than 3,800 messages they received. “[This approach] allowed us to get as close as possible to where the everyday moral or immoral action is,” says Wilhelm Hofmann, a professor of social and economic cognition at Germany’s University of Cologne. He and his colleagues report their findings to be published Friday in the journal Science.

The research uncovered some interesting distinctions, based on the respondents’ self-reported political and religious affiliations. Liberals and conservatives placed different levels of emphasis on different moral values, for example. Liberals were more likely to report events related to fairness, liberty and honesty than their conservative counterparts, who instead emphasized situations related to loyal or disloyal behavior and acts of sanctity (prayer, in some cases) or degradation (indecency, for example).

The study also found that religious and nonreligious participants were equally likely to commit moral or immoral acts. Religious people reported fewer immoral experiences overall, but the researchers attributed this difference mostly to religious people hearing about immoral acts less often—“a possible result of selective exposure”—rather than having committed immoral deeds less often than nonreligious people.

Texted responses from participants across political and religious spectrums indicated that being the target of moral or immoral deeds had a big impact on their level of happiness. And the act of engaging in moral or immoral deeds influenced feelings related to whether their lives had a clear sense of purpose at that moment. The researchers found that recipients of moral acts were more likely to do something moral later that day, an effect they call “moral contagion.” They also discovered that those who performed a moral act earlier in the day had a higher likelihood of engaging in “moral self-licensing” and thus would report committing an immoral act at a later time.

The ability to closely connect with people faced with ethical decisions has been missing from the study of morality, Hofmann says. Instead of working with contrived scenarios in a lab, this study made use of real-world dilemmas that people were dealing with as part of their daily lives. Hofmann sees similar smartphone-based approaches extending beyond psychology and sociology into situations where apps could be used to proactively provide interventions for help people struggling with self-control issues.