How do we make moral judgments?

This research is a bit older but as I stumbled upon it, I do think it’s still worth sharing as it gives intriguing insights into some of the factors that influence how we make moral judgments. So, we seem less rational than we might think as the 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.

From the press release:

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.”

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.

So it seems that as learning styles don’t exist, how we are oriented might have an influence on how we make moral judgements.

Abstract of the first paper:

A classic problem in moral psychology concerns whether and when moral judgments are driven by intuition versus deliberate reasoning. In this investigation, we explored the role of reappraisal, an emotion-regulation strategy that involves construing an emotion-eliciting situation in a way that diminishes the intensity of the emotional experience. We hypothesized that although emotional reactions evoke initial moral intuitions, reappraisal weakens the influence of these intuitions, leading to more deliberative moral judgments. Three studies of moral judgments in emotionally evocative, disgust-eliciting moral dilemmas supported our hypothesis. A greater tendency to reappraise was related to fewer intuition-based judgments (Study 1). Content analysis of open-ended descriptions of moral-reasoning processes revealed that reappraisal was associated with longer time spent in deliberation and with fewer intuitionist moral judgments (Study 2). Finally, in comparison with participants who simply watched an emotion-inducing film, participants who had been instructed to reappraise their reactions while watching the film subsequently reported less intense emotional reactions to moral dilemmas, and these dampened reactions led, in turn, to fewer intuitionist moral judgments (Study 3).

Abstract of the second paper:

We conducted three experiments indicating that characteristically deontological judgments—here, disapproving of sacrificing one person for the greater good of others—are preferentially supported by visual imagery. Experiment 1 used two matched working memory tasks—one visual, one verbal—to identify individuals with relatively visual cognitive styles and individuals with relatively verbal cognitive styles. Individuals with more visual cognitive styles made more deontological judgments. Experiment 2 showed that visual interference, relative to verbal interference and no interference, decreases deontological judgment. Experiment 3 indicated that these effects are due to people’s tendency to visualize the harmful means (sacrificing one person) more than the beneficial end (saving others). These results suggest a specific role for visual imagery in moral judgment: When people consider sacrificing someone as a means to an end, visual imagery preferentially supports the judgment that the ends do not justify the means. These results suggest an integration of the dual-process theory of moral judgment with construal-level theory.

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