A smartphone app can help track moral and immoral acts committed or witnessed by people as they go about their everyday lives.
Researchers have used the app to study morally loaded experiences in the lives of more than 1,200 US and Canadian adults recruited through Craigslist, Twitter, and other sources.
Wilhelm Hofmann, a social psychologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, and his colleagues pinged study participants with text messages at random times and asked them to report any moral or immoral acts they'd committed, been the target of, witnessed, or simply heard about within the previous hour.
Such acts turned out to be common: of the 13,240 responses collected over the course of the study study, 29 % included a morally significant event, 'wired.com' reported.
These were roughly evenly split between moral acts (in the judgement of the person reporting the event), such as helping a lost tourist or giving a sandwich to a homeless person, and acts deemed immoral, such as petty theft or smoking in a car full of children.
Most of these acts - 64 % - occurred in public places. Another 23 % occurred at home.
The study found that people were about three times as likely to report committing a moral act as an immoral one and about 2.5 times as likely to report hearing about someone else behaving badly as doing good deeds.
The researchers found no evidence that religious people commit moral acts more often than nonreligious people.
Religious people reported hearing about fewer immoral acts, however, which the authors suggested may be due largely to being selective about the company they keep.
The study also found evidence for a phenomenon psychologists call moral contagion: People who were the target of a moral act were more likely to commit a moral act later in the day.
But there was also evidence for a countervailing influence called moral self-licensing. People who committed a moral act earlier in the day were more likely to slack off, morally speaking: They committed fewer moral and more immoral acts later in the day.
The findings appear in the journal Science.