Physical and Social Threats Fortify Moral Judgements

Change log
Henderson, Robert 

Moral judgements are often believed to be firmly grounded in rational thought. However, scholars have discovered that moral considerations are responsive to individual and contextual factors, such as contamination and disease threats. Indeed, the role of disgust and disease threats on amplifying judgements of moral wrongdoing has been widely investigated. Likewise, there may be other forms of threat that similarly fortify condemnation across multiple domains of morality. To explore this possibility, I conducted three lines of research, as reported in Chapters 2 through 4 of this thesis. I hypothesized that worry about contracting an illness in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, heightened risk perception as a consequence of senescence, and the presence or prospect of social exclusion would lead individuals to rate moral transgressions as more objectionable. In Chapter 2, I examined whether individual differences in concern about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic were associated with stricter judgements of moral wrongdoing across the five moral foundations of harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/degradation. Results showed that from March-May of 2020, individuals who were more worried about a previously unknown type of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and contracting the associated COVID-19 disease were harsher in their evaluations of unrelated moral wrongdoing, relative to individuals who were less worried. Results held when controlling for political orientation, suggesting fear of illness was driving the effect, rather than ideological beliefs. Moreover, there was suggestive evidence that moral condemnation intensified across the time periods tested, perhaps as a function of prolonged exposure to the risk of contracting a potentially deadly communicable illness.
Building on these findings concerning the relationship between physical threats and moral verdicts, Chapter 3 reports results from multiple large cross-sectional panel surveys, namely nine rounds European Social Survey and seven waves of the World Values Survey, which suggest that relative to younger adults, older adults hold stricter views about the moral domains of authority, purity, and fairness. Results held after controlling for political orientation and income. In a follow-up study on the online testing platform Prolific, older adults rated moral violations to be more objectionable than younger adults. This relationship between age and moral condemnation was mediated by risk perception, such that older adults reported higher sensitivity to risk across a number of domains, which in turn was associated with stricter moral judgements. In sum, findings were consistent with the hypothesis that threats, in this case in the form of older age and senescence, are associated with stricter moral judgements. Shifting to a different form of threat, in Chapter 4 I report findings from three studies investigating how the presence of, and sensitivity to, social exclusion is tied to stricter moral judgements. In two studies, findings revealed an indirect effect: social exclusion reduced the fundamental social needs of belonging, self-esteem, sense of control, and meaningful existence, which in turn was associated with fortified moral judgements. The indirect effect was especially pronounced for harm violations, suggesting a heightened fear of immediate personal danger in response to social exclusion. Alongside these experimental findings, a correlational study revealed a striking effect size for the relationship between social anxiety and moral condemnation, with similar associations across each of five moral content domains. Taken together, results suggest that both the experience of, and sensitivity to, social threat is associated with heightened condemnation of moral infractions. Consistent results from these three lines of work suggest that physical and social threats help to explain and predict moral judgements in response to subjective considerations of safety and well-being.

Schnall, Simone
morality, moral psychology, moral foundations theory, disgust, COVID-19
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust
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