How Do We Make Moral Judgments? – Insights From Psychological Science

New research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, provides intriguing insights into some of the factors that influence how we make moral judgments.

Reappraising Our Emotions Allows Cooler Heads to Prevail

We might like to think that our judgments are always well thought-out, but research suggests that our moral judgments are often based on intuition. Our emotions seem to drive our intuitions, giving us the gut feeling that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ In some cases, however, we seem to be able to override these initial reactions. Matthew Feinberg and colleagues hypothesized that this might be the result of reappraisal, a process by which we dampen the intensity of our emotions by focusing on an intellectual description of why we are experiencing the emotion. Across several studies, participants read stories describing moral dilemmas involving behaviors participants would probably find disgusting. Participants who reappraised the scenarios logically were less likely to make intuition-based moral judgments.  These findings suggest that although our emotional reactions elicit moral intuitions, these emotions can also be regulated. “In this way,” the researchers write, “we are both slave and master, with the capacity to be controlled by, but also shape, our emotion-laden judgmental processes.”

Lead Author: Matthew

Published in the July 2012 issue of Psychological Science

You See, the Ends Don’t Justify the Means: Visual Imagery Influences Moral Judgment

In comics, superheroes are often forced by a villain to choose between saving a single person (usually their lover) or many innocent people. The villain expects the superhero either to make a deontological choice (it’s wrong to sacrifice one for many) or a utilitarian choice (it’s better to save more people). Most people (including superheroes) tend to use their imagination to visualize difficult scenarios. To investigate what role visual imagery plays in moral judgment, researchers Elinor Amit and Joshua Greene tested whether volunteers were more visually or verbally oriented, then presented them with moral dilemmas. Visually oriented people were more likely to make deontological judgments, focusing on the one above the many. This is probably because they were more prone to visualize the harm being caused. So imagination can influence a person’s moral judgment, though superheroes often use it to find a third option to thwart the villain.

Lead Author: Elinor Amit—

Published in the August 2012 issue of Psychological Science

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