Oxford Moral Psychology Reading Group


organized by David Hall and Regina Rini

The Oxford Moral Psychology Reading Group exists to allow students and researchers to keep up-to-date on recent developments in the psychology of morality, politics, and related fields. We meet every other week throughout term. At each meeting, two members introduce recent empirical studies, followed by general discussion. The idea is to spread around the reading burden; only those introducing are expected to have read the papers carefully before the meeting.

As David Hall and I are both no longer at Oxford, leadership of the OMPRG (now re-branded the Oxford Morality Group) has changed hands. Please contact Joshua Shepherd for information on its current incarnation. I will leave the information below as a record of the papers we discussed in the past.

Meetings take place in the common area of Suite 8, Littlegate House, at the Uehiro Centre. In Hilary 2014 we are meeting on Thursdays, 2:00 – 3:30 pm. This term’s schedule appears below. All are welcome, though please email one of the organizers to let us know you’ll be attending.


HT8: Thursday 13 March 2014

Tainting the soul: Purity concerns predict moral judgments of suicide
J Rottman et al. (2013). Cognition 130(2): 217-226.
— introduced by Joanna Demaree-Cotton —
Moral violations are typically defined as actions that harm others. However, suicide is considered immoral even though the perpetrator is also the victim. To determine whether concerns about purity rather than harm predict moral condemnation of suicide, we presented American adults with obituaries describing suicide or homicide victims. While harm was the only variable predicting moral judgments of homicide, perceived harm (toward others, the self, or God) did not significantly account for variance in moral judgments of suicide. Instead, regardless of political and religious views and contrary to explicit beliefs about their own moral judgments, participants were more likely to morally condemn suicide if they (i) believed suicide tainted the victims’ souls, (ii) reported greater concerns about purity in an independent questionnaire, (iii) experienced more disgust in response to the obituaries, or (iv) reported greater trait disgust. Thus, suicide is deemed immoral to the extent that it is considered impure.
Escaping affect: How motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering
CD Cameron and BK Payne (2011). J Pers and Soc Psych 100(1): 1-15.
— introduced by Andreas Mogensen —
As the number of people in need of help increases, the degree of compassion people feel for them ironically tends to decrease. This phenomenon is termed the collapse of compassion. Some researchers have suggested that this effect happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals. In Experiment 1, participants displayed the collapse of compassion only when they expected to be asked to donate money to the victims. This suggests that the effect is motivated by self-interest. Experiment 2 showed that the collapse of compassion emerged only for people who were skilled at emotion regulation. In Experiment 3, we manipulated emotion regulation. Participants who were told to down-regulate their emotions showed the collapse of compassion, but participants who were told to experience their emotions did not. We examined the time course of these effects using a dynamic rating to measure affective responses in real time. The time course data suggested that participants regulate emotion toward groups proactively, by preventing themselves from ever experiencing as much emotion toward groups as toward individuals. These findings provide initial evidence that motivated emotion regulation drives insensitivity to mass suffering.

HT6: Thursday 27 February 2014

The essential moral self
N Strohminger and S Nichols (2014). Cognition 131(1): 159-171.
— introduced by Joshua Shepherd —
It has often been suggested that the mind is central to personal identity. But do all parts of the mind contribute equally? Across five experiments, we demonstrate that moral traits—more than any other mental faculty—are considered the most essential part of identity, the self, and the soul. Memory, especially emotional and autobiographical memory, is also fairly important. Lower-level cognition and perception have the most tenuous connection to identity, rivaling that of purely physical traits. These findings suggest that folk notions of personal identity are largely informed by the mental faculties affecting social relationships, with a particularly keen focus on moral traits.
Changing Social Norm Compliance With Noninvasive Brain Stimulation
CC Ruff et al. (2013). Science 342(6157): 482-484.
— introduced by Regina Rini —
All known human societies have maintained social order by enforcing compliance with social norms. The biological mechanisms underlying norm compliance are, however, hardly understood. We show that the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC) is involved in both voluntary and sanction-induced norm compliance. Both types of compliance could be changed by varying the neural excitability of this brain region with transcranial direct current stimulation, but they were affected in opposite ways, suggesting that the stimulated region plays a fundamentally different role in voluntary and sanction-based compliance. Brain stimulation had a particularly strong effect on compliance in the context of socially constituted sanctions, whereas it left beliefs about what the norm prescribes and about subjectively expected sanctions unaffected. Our findings suggest that rLPFC activity is a key biological prerequisite for an evolutionarily and socially important aspect of human behavior.

HT4: Thursday 13 February 2014

Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief
CJ Clark et al (forthcoming). JPSP
— introduced by Joshua Shepherd —
Belief in free will is a pervasive phenomenon that has important consequences for prosocial actions and punitive judgments, but little research has investigated why free will beliefs are so widespread. Across five studies using experimental , survey, and archival data , and multiple measures of free will belief, we tested the hypothesis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In Study 1, participants reported greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action than a morally neutral one. Study 2 provided evidence that this effect was due to heightened punitive motivations. In a field experiment (Study 3), an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, again due to heightened punitive motivations. In Study 4, reading about others’ immoral behaviors reduced the perceived merit of anti free will research, thus demonstrating the effect with an indirect measure of free will belief. Finally, Study 5 examinedthis relationship outside the laboratory and found that the real-world prevalence of immoral behavior (as measured by crime and homicide rates) predicted free will belief on a country -level. Taken together, these results provide a potential explanation for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: it is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.

Roman Catholic beliefs produce characteristic neural responses to moral dilemmas
JF Christensen et al. (2014). Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 9(2): 240-249.
— introduced by David Hall —
This study provides exploratory evidence about how behavioral and neural responses to standard moral dilemmas are influenced by religious belief. Eleven Catholics and thirteen Atheists (all female) judged 48 moral dilemmas. Differential neural activity between the two groups was found in precuneus and in prefrontal, frontal and temporal regions. Furthermore, a double dissociation showed that Catholics recruited different areas for deontological (precuneus; temporoparietal junction [TPJ]) and utilitarian moral judgments (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]; temporal poles [TP]), whereas Atheists did not (superior parietal gyrus [SPG] for both types of judgment). Finally, we tested how both groups responded to personal and impersonal moral dilemmas: Catholics showed enhanced activity in DLPFC and posterior cingulate cortex [PCC] during utilitarian moral judgments to impersonal moral dilemmas, and enhanced responses in anterior cingulate cortex [ACC] and superior temporal sulcus [STS] during deontological moral judgments to personal moral dilemmas. Our results indicate that moral judgment can be influenced by an acquired set of norms and conventions transmitted through religious indoctrination and practice. Catholic individuals may hold enhanced awareness of the incommensurability between two unequivocal doctrines of the Catholic belief set, triggered explicitly in a moral dilemma: help and care in all circumstances –but thou shalt not kill.

HT2: Thursday 30 January 2014

Neurophenomenology: an integrated approach to exploring awe and wonder
L Reinerman-Jones, et al. (2013). South African Journal of Philosophy 32(4): 295-309.
— introduced by Kevin Tobia —
Astronauts often report experiences of awe and wonder while traveling in space. This paper addresses the question of whether awe and wonder can be scientifically investigated in a simulated space travel scenario using a neurophenomenological method. To answer this question, we created a mixed-reality simulation similar to the environment of the International Space Station. Portals opened to display simulations of Earth or Deep Space. However, the challenge still remained of how to best capture the resulting experience of participants. We could use psycholog- ical methods, neuroscientific methods or philosophical methods. Each of these approaches offer many benefits, but each is also limited. Neurophenomenology capitalises on and integrates all three methods. We employed questionnaires from psychology, electroencephalography, electrocardiography, and functional near-infrared spectroscopy from neuroscience, and a phenomenological interview technique from philosophy. This neurophenomenological method enabled extensive insight in experiencers and non-experiencers of awe and wonder (AW) in a simulated space scenario that otherwise would not have been possible. Traditional empirical analyses were completed, followed by individual differences analyses using interview transcriptions paired with physiological responses. Experiencers of AW showed differences in theta and beta activity throughout the brain compared to non-experiencers. Questionnaires indicated that non-experiencers of AW gave more positive responses of religious and spiritual practices than experiencers of AW. Interviews showed that awe and wonder were more likely to occur when watching the simulated Earth view instead of the Deep Space view. Our study is a success- ful example of neurophenomenology, a powerful and promising interdisciplinary approach for future studies of complex states of experience.
Crowding Out Culture: Scandinavians and Americans Agree on Social Welfare in the Face of Deservingness Cues
L Aaroe and MB Petersen (forthcoming). Journal of Politics
— introduced by David Hall —
A robust finding in the welfare state literature is that public support for the welfare state differs widely across countries. Yet recent research on the psychology of welfare support suggests that people everywhere form welfare opinions using psychological predispositions designed to regulate interpersonal help-giving using cues regarding recipient effort. We argue that this implies that cross-national differences in welfare support emerge from mutable differences in stereotypes about recipient efforts rather than deep differences in psychological predispositions. Using free association tasks and experiments embedded in large-scale, nationally representative surveys collected in the United States and Denmark, we test this argument by investigating the stability of opinion differences when faced with the presence and absence of cues about the deservingness of specific welfare recipients. Despite decades of exposure to different cultures and welfare institutions, two sentences of information can make welfare support across the U.S. and Scandinavian samples substantially and statistically indistinguishable.

MT8: Thursday 5 December 2013

Does “Science” Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior
C Ma-Kellams, J Blascovich (2013). PLoS ONE 8(3): e57989.
— introduced by Regina Rini —
Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains. Study 1 (n = 36) tested the natural correlation between exposure to science and likelihood of enforcing moral norms. Studies 2 (n = 49), 3 (n = 52), and 4 (n = 43) manipulated thoughts about science and examined the causal impact of such thoughts on imagined and actual moral behavior. Across studies, thinking about science had a moralizing effect on a broad array of domains, including interpersonal violations (Studies 1, 2), prosocial intentions (Study 3), and economic exploitation (Study 4).
Value Judgments and the True Self
GE Newman, P Bloom, J Knobe (2013). Pers Soc Psych Bull Online First
— introduced by Joshua Shepherd —
The belief that individuals have a “true self” plays an important role in many areas of psychology as well as everyday life. The present studies demonstrate that people have a general tendency to conclude that the true self is fundamentally good—that is, that deep inside every individual, there is something motivating him or her to behave in ways that are virtuous. Study 1 finds that observers are more likely to see a person’s true self reflected in behaviors they deem to be morally good than in behaviors they deem to be bad. Study 2 replicates this effect and demonstrates observers’ own moral values influence what they judge to be another person’s true self. Finally, Study 3 finds that this normative view of the true self is independent of the particular type of mental state (beliefs vs. feelings) that is seen as responsible for an agent’s behavior.

MT6: Thursday 21 November 2013

Beliefs Don’t Always Persevere: How Political Figures Are Punished When Positive Information about Them Is Discredited.
MD Cobb, B Nyhan, and J Reifler (2013). Political Psychology 34: 307–326.
— introduced by Ole Andreassen —
Recent research has extended the belief-perseverance paradigm to the political realm, showing that negative information about political figures has a persistent effect on political opinions even after it has been discredited. However, little is known about the effects of false positive information about political figures. In three experiments, we find that discrediting positive information generates a “punishment effect” that is inconsistent with the previous literature on belief perseverance. We argue people attempt to adjust for the perceived influence of the false claim when the information is discredited. In this case, when trying to account for the effects of discredited positive information about a politician, people overestimate how much correction is needed and thus end up with a more negative opinion. (By contrast, people underestimate how much correction is needed to adjust for false negative information, leading to belief perseverance.) These results suggest that bogus credit claiming or other positive misinformation can have severe repercussions for politicians.
Moral emotions and the envisaging of mitigating circumstances for wrongdoing
J Piazza, PS Russell, P Sousa (2013). Cognition & Emotion 27(4): 707–722.
— introduced by David Hall —
Anger may be more responsive than disgust to mitigating circumstances in judgements of wrongdoing. We tested this hypothesis in two studies where we had participants envision circumstances that could serve to mitigate an otherwise wrongful act. In Study 1, participants provided moral judgements, and ratings of anger and disgust, to a number of transgressions involving either harm or bodily purity. They were then asked to imagine and report whether there might be any circumstances that would make it all right to perform the act. Across transgression type, and controlling for covariance between anger and disgust, levels of anger were found to negatively predict the envisioning of mitigating circumstances for wrongdoing, while disgust was unrelated. Study 2 replicated and extended these findings to less serious transgressions, using a continuous measure of mitigating circumstances, and demonstrated the impact of anger independent of deontological commitments. These findings highlight the differential relationship that anger and disgust have with the ability to envision mitigating factors.

MT4: Thursday 7 November 2013

Are “counter-intuitive” deontological judgments really counter-intuitive? An empirical reply to Kahane et al. (2012)
JM Paxton, T Bruni, and JD Greene (2013). Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci
— introduced by Kevin Tobia —
A substantial body of evidence indicates that utilitarian judgments favoring the greater good) made in response to difficult moral dilemmas are preferentially supported by controlled, reflective processes, whereas deontological judgments (favoring rights/duties) in such cases are preferentially supported by automatic, intuitive processes. A recent neuroimaging study by Kahane et al. challenges this claim, using a new set of moral dilemmas that allegedly reverse the previously observed association. We report on a study in which we both induced and measured reflective responding to one of Greene et al.?’s original dilemmas and one of Kahane et al.?s new dilemmas. For the original dilemma, induced reflection led to more utilitarian responding, replicating previous findings using the same methods.There was no overall effect of induced reflection for the new dilemma. However, for both dilemmas, the degree to which an individual engaged in prior reflection predicted the subsequent degree of utilitarian responding, with more reflective subjects providing more utilitarian judgments. These results cast doubt on Kahane et al.’?s conclusions and buttress the original claim linking controlled, reflective processes to utilitarian judgment and automatic, intuitive processes to deontological judgment. Importantly, these results also speak to the generality of the underlying theory, indicating that what holds for cases involving utilitarian physical harms also holds for cases involving utilitarian lies.
Chimpanzees play the ultimatum game
D. Proctor, et al.(2013) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 2070-2075.
— introduced by Andreas Mogensen —
Is the sense of fairness uniquely human? Human reactions to reward division are often studied by means of the ultimatum game, in which both partners need to agree on a distribution for both to receive rewards. Humans typically offer generous portions of the reward to their partner, a tendency our close primate relatives have thus far failed to show in experiments. Here we tested chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and human children on a modified ultimatum game. One individual chose between two tokens that, with their partner’s cooperation, could be exchanged for rewards. One token offered equal rewards to both players, whereas the other token favored the chooser. Both apes and children responded like humans typically do. If their partner’s cooperation was required, they split the rewards equally. However, with passive partners—a situation akin to the so-called dictator game—they preferred the selfish option. Thus, humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences regarding reward division, suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness.

MT2: Thursday 24 October 2013

Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority
K. Toner, et al. (forthcoming) Psychological Science
— introduced by David Hall —
Accusations of entrenched political partisanship have been launched against both conservatives and liberals. But is feeling superior about one’s beliefs a partisan issue? Two competing hypotheses exist: the rigidity-of-the-right hypothesis (i.e., conservatives are dogmatic) and the ideological-extremism hypothesis (i.e., extreme views on both sides predict dogmatism). We measured 527 Americans’ attitudes about nine contentious political issues, the degree to which they thought their beliefs were superior to other people’s, and their level of dogmatism. Dogmatism was higher for people endorsing conservative views than for people endorsing liberal views, which replicates the rigidity-of-theright hypothesis. However, curvilinear effects of ideological attitude on belief superiority (i.e., belief that one’s position is more correct than another’s) supported the ideological-extremism hypothesis. Furthermore, responses reflecting the greatest belief superiority were obtained on conservative attitudes for three issues and liberal attitudes for another three issues. These findings capture nuances in the relationship between political beliefs and attitude entrenchment that have not been revealed previously.
Diverging Effects of Clean Versus Dirty Money on Attitudes, Values, and Interpersonal Behavior
Q. Yang, et al. (2013) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
— introduced by Regina Rini —
Does the cue of money lead to selfish, greedy, exploitative behaviors or to fairness, exchange, and reciprocity? We found evidence for both, suggesting that people have both sets of meaningful associations, which can be differentially activated by exposure to clean versus dirty money. In a field experiment at a farmers’ market, vendors who handled dirty money subsequently cheated customers, whereas those who handled clean money gave fair value (Experiment 1). In laboratory studies with economic games, participants who had previously handled and counted dirty money tended toward selfish, unfair practices—unlike those who had counted clean money or dirty paper, both of which led to fairness and reciprocity. These patterns were found with the trust game (Experiment 2), the prisoner’s dilemma (Experiment 4), the ultimatum game (Experiment 5), and the dictator game (Experiment 6). Cognitive measures indicated that exposure to dirty money lowered moral standards (Experiment 3) and reduced positive attitudes toward fairness and reciprocity (Experiments 6–7), whereas exposure to clean money had the opposite effects. Thus, people apparently have 2 contradictory sets of associations (including behavioral tendencies) to money, which is a complex, powerful, and ubiquitous aspect of human social life and cultural organization.