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Moral judgments and impressions are tremendously important. In extreme situations they can decide about life or death, for example convicted murderers perceived as untrustworthy (based on their appearance) are more frequently sentenced to death, while those perceived as trustworthy receive a lesser sentence of imprisonment. Moral judgments are a joint product of affective intuitions and moral reasoning. It is important to understand how each of these components influences the formation of moral assessments. The present project focuses on attitude-driven affect as a factor shaping moral judgments.

 

Research project

ATTITUDINAL INFLUENCES ON MORAL JUDGEMENTS



Research Unit
UNI SWPS english
Grant Amount
30 000 EUR
Funding Source
FNP logo EN

Duration of Research Project: February 2017–July 2017

 

Moral judgments and impressions are tremendously important. In extreme situations they can decide about life or death, for example convicted murderers perceived as untrustworthy (based on their appearance) are more frequently sentenced to death, while those perceived as trustworthy receive a lesser sentence of imprisonment.

Moral judgments are a joint product of affective intuitions and moral reasoning. It is important to understand how each of these components influences the formation of moral assessments. The present project focuses on attitude-driven affect as a factor shaping moral judgments.

Project Background

Rationalist Tradition vs. Emotionalis Approach

The main debate on the nature of moral judgment has centered around the importance of reason versus emotion (Haidt, 2007). According to the rationalist tradition, moral judgment relies on reasoning and involves several steps in conscious, language-based thinking. In other words moral judgments are shaped in the process of uncovering a moral truth in a deliberate way. In contrast, according to the emotionalist approach, moral judgments resemble instant perceptions rather than deliberate inferences, and the effect of these perceptions on judgment is mediated through emotional experience. Like other kinds of evaluations, moral judgments are frequently based on emotional intuitions (“gut feelings” of right or wrong) that emerge without intention or effort, and they do so much quicker than the assumption of a deliberate multi-stage processing could allow for.

Because intuitions result from automatic processes which are fast and continuous, while reasoning results from controlled processes which are slow and intermittent, the former typically dominate moral judgments (though the latter can also influence judgments if there is motivation do so). This makes intuitions crucial to the understanding of moral judgments.

Attitudes - Intuitive Summary Evaluations

Because intuitions are highly idiosyncratic (Wojciszke et al., 2015), explaining their nature is vital for clarifying moral controversies and the resulting social divisions which are so disruptive in modern societies.

Most intuitions are affective in nature and they may result from three types of affect: discrete emotions, mood, and attitudes. The present research project focuses on attitudes. Attitudes are summary evaluations, which are formed online (i.e. at the time of exposure to information) or stored in long-term memory, which can influence current affective states and information processing. Although evaluation, by definition, lays at the core of attitudes, and the question of how attitudes influence information processing has been a traditional problem of this field of research (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993), no studies explored the problem of how attitudes influence moral judgments.

The present project has three specific goals. The first is to show the basic effect – that a positive (negative) attitude toward a target person increases (decreases) moral evaluations of the target. The second goal is to establish the moderators of the predicted attitudinal bias in moral judgment. The third goal is to establish the mediators of the attitudinal bias.

The project is supported by a 6-month sabbatical fellowship, provided by the Foundation for Polish Science to the beneficiaries of the MASTER grant program. Research will be conducted at the University of Cambridge. More information »

Research Direction

Attitudes towards friends and strangers

Attitudes are ubiquitous, fast to emerge from numerous bases, and people spend most of their lives surrounded by others, who are more or less familiar, meaning that people have either positive or negative attitudes towards those others. Naturally occurring moral judgments probably concern mostly persons who are already liked or disliked and act in a way which at least potentially influences outcomes of the evaluator. This is in stark contrast to the situations studied in current research on moral judgment. These typically involve strangers as targets of evaluation (no pre-existing attitudes), who are only imagined and do something irrelevant for the fate of the evaluator (no personal involvement). In other words, moral judgments are typically studied in a sort of social vacuum, which casts reasonable doubt on the ecological validity of these studies. Bringing attitudes into moral judgment paradigms can make them more ecologically valid and, in effect, more socially relevant.

Consequences of Attitudinal Influences on Moral Judgements

Yet another reason for studying attitudinal influences on moral judgments is that attitudes are not only ubiquitous, but also consequential. Attitudes can heavily influence many variables and ignoring this influence may lead to misrepresentations of reality. For example, current theorizing on emotional responses to others’ successes and failures puts much emphasis on deservingness considerations. It is assumed that deserved failures result in schadenfreude and deserved successes lead to joy, whereas undeserved outcomes lead to resentment and sorrow. However, taking into account attitudes toward the failing or succeeding person changes the picture entirely (Pietraszkiewicz & Wojciszke, 2014). Positive attitudes toward others led to empathic responses to their outcomes – joy after a success and sorrow after a failure. Negative attitudes resulted in paradoxical responses – negative to a success (resentment) and positive to a failure (schadenfreude). The same may be true for many moral judgments – they may be frequently driven by attitudes, though rationalized by other considerations (seemingly more rational and socially shared).

Subjectivity and Reasoning in Formulation of Moral Judgements

Attitudes are by definition subjective, therefore evidencing their influence on moral judgments can demystify the latter, showing that they frequently are not what they appear to be (i.e., that they are mere preferences disguised as sound and objectively true judgments). In effect, justifications of moral judgments may appear more important for public discourse than the judgments per se. And because justifications require reasoning, bringing back reason to moral disagreements may make such disagreements less subjective, and thereby less disruptive for the society.

Researchers

258 Bogdan Wojciszke

Professor

Bogdan Wojciszke

Principal Investigator
Psychologist, interested in social cognition and attitudinal influences on moral judgements

someone

 

Simone Schnall, Ph.D.

Social Psychologist, Director of Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory

Publications

  • Białobrzeska, O., Bocian, K., Frankowska, N., Parzuchowski, M., & Wojciszke, B. (2014). To nie fair (bo mi szkodzi): Zaangazowanie interesu wlasnego znieksztalca ocene sprawiedliwosci dystrybutywnej. [It’s not fair if I don’t gain from it: Engaging self-interest distorts the assessment of distributive justice]. Psychologia Społeczna, 10, 149-162. doi: 10.7366/1896180020153303
  • Bocian, K., & Wojciszke, B. (2014). Self-interest bias in moral judgments of others’ actions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 898-909. doi: 10.1177/0146167214529800
  • Bocian, K., & Wojciszke, B. (2014). Unawareness of self-interest bias in moral judgments of others’ behavior. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 45, 411–417. doi: 10.2478/ppb-2014-0050
  • Parzuchowski, M., & Wojciszke, B. (2014). Hand over heart primes moral judgment and behavior. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 38, 145-165. doi: 10.1007/s10919-013-0170-0
  • Wojciszke, B., Bocian, K., Parzuchowski, M., & Szymkow, A. (2014). Nieuchronna tendencyjnosc ocen moralnych [On the inevitability of bias in moral judgments]. Nauka, 3, 45-62.
  • Wojciszke, B., Parzuchowski, M., & Bocian, K. (2015). Moral judgments and impressions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 50-54. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.028

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