Four Unwarranted Assumptions about the Role of Emotion in Moral Judgment


Professor Nina Strohminger

Nina Strohminger, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania


This piece is excerpted from a longer working paper, “Seven Unwarranted Assumptions about the Role of Emotion in Moral Judgment.”

July 2017 – Pinning down the precise role emotion plays in moral judgment is as close to a white whale as moral psychology gets. Individually considered, emotional and moral processing are highly complex and amorphous phenomena. They resist precise measurement, or even a universally agreed upon definition. Our understanding of how these two are intertwined also depends critically on the logic undergirding our empirical methodology. There is, at present, an uncomfortably wide gap between what the standard methods have the power to show and the inferences we wish to draw from them. Yet these limitations have been largely ignored. In the absence of better tools, and in our zeal to answer the field’s most pressing questions, it is easy to lose sight of what these methods can actually tell us.

There is, at present, no consensus on the extent or kind of influence emotions[1] have on moral judgment. At one end of the spectrum are those who deny that emotion impacts moral judgment at all. Sure, emotions accompany moral judgment, but their presence could be epiphenomenonal. For instance, emotion could serve to motivate subsequent behavior, whilst remaining inert in the production of moral judgment (Mikhail, 2007; Huebner, Dwyer, & Hauser, 2009).

At the other end of the spectrum is the view that emotion is deeply insinuated in moral judgment, so much so that it can lend moral resonance to otherwise benign actions (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993; Nichols, 2004; Prinz, 2007). Hypnotizing subjects to experience disgust while reading stories causes them to think the characters are ’up to no good’, even when the characters are engaged in innocuous activities like grocery shopping (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005). Adding emotional salience to conventional violations (like slurping one’s soup) can make them seem like moral ones (like spitting into someone else’s; Nichols, 2002). Of course, what counts as a ’moral’ issue shape-shifts across communities and generations. Masturbation no longer seems the moral blight it once did; conversely, the moral significance Americans now attach to dietary choices would have been unimaginable a century ago. Some have proposed that emotion plays a role in this redistricting of the moral domain (Rozin, 1999; Horberg, Oveis, Keltner, & Cohen, 2009). Emotion may even be necessary for learning what is moral in the first place (Cushman, 2013). For instance, Robert Blair (1995) has argued that a deficit to the fear response in childhood leads to psychopathy in adulthood.

There are a variety of weaker versions of this claim. Perhaps emotion does not determine the boundaries of the moral domain, but intensifies disapprobation for an act we already believe is wrong (Pizarro, Inbar, & Helion, 2011; Huebner, 2015). Or perhaps emotion can only make acts seem morally wrong when they meet certain criteria, for instance if they concern principles of autonomy, community, and sanctity (Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997; Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Gray, Young, & Waytz, 2012). In short, emotion could nudge an opinion this way or that, without fundamentally altering moral perception.

Psychologists have not often drawn a distinction between the strong (constitutive) and weak (nudging) hypotheses (cf. Pizarro et al., 2011; Huebner, 2015). While this distinction is important, both hypotheses boil down to a form of sentimentalism—the view that emotion plays a causal role in moral judgment. By and large, the methods discussed below have been used to advance some version of sentimentalism.

Despite how this evidence has usually been interpreted, these methods actually provide very little certainty about the role of emotion in moral judgment. Not only do these methods not allow us to adjudicate between the different flavors of folk sentimentalism, they don’t count as terribly good evidence that emotion plays any kind of unique role in the production of moral judgment. The following is intended as a corrective.

One way of approaching this question is to measure how the propensity to experience emotion (trait emotion) correlates with moral beliefs. Individual differences in trait emotion can then be treated as a proxy for how emotion operates as a transient state for all members of the population. People who are high in trait disgust are less likely to give utilitarian moral judgments (Choe & Min, 2011) and more likely to endorse socially conservative viewpoints, such as that abortion and gay marriage are wrong (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009; Inbar, Pizarro, Iyer, & Haidt, 2012). Such findings could be used to argue that this is how disgust works as a transient emotional state as well: Anyone who renders a moral judgment while disgusted will become a little more conservative, a little less utilitarian. This basic maneuver—using trait emotion to infer the workings of state emotion—has been put forth for a variety of emotions, ranging from anger to empathy (Choe & Min, 2011).

It would certainly be convenient if trait emotion and state emotion were interchangeable; that is, if they reflected the same process, and led to the same output. However, we have very little evidence that the two produce comparable effects in the context of moral cognition. The most-studied emotion in this regard is disgust. And while putting people into a disgusted state has been shown to increase disapprobation for moral violations (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005; Schnall, Haidt, Clore, & Jordan, 2008), attempts to link disgust sensitivity to moral severity have largely failed (Nichols, 2002; Inbar, Pizarro, Knobe, & Bloom, 2009; Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009; Laakasuo, Sundvall, Drosinou, 2017, Pizarro, personal communication; Strohminger, unpublished data; cf. Jones & Fitness, 2008).

Outside of the moral psychology literature, similar inconsistencies appear. Dispositional sadness leads to less accurate and overgeneralized memory (Williams & Scott, 1988; Brittlebank, Scott, Williams, & Ferrier, 1993), whereas transient sadness leads to higher recall and greater detail-orientation (Storbeck & Clore, 2005; Forgas, Goldenberg, & Unkelbach, 2009; Forgas, 2010). Sadness does not have a uniform effect on cognitive performance. Rather, its effect depends on whether the individual is momentarily gloomy or perpetually so.

Unwarranted Assumption 1 (State/trait conflation)

The tendency to experience an emotion (trait) produces comparable effects to the temporary experience of that emotion (state).

We should probably not be surprised that stable personality traits do not always produce the same effect as fleeting emotional states. After all, the two represent quite different mental constructs. Trait emotion scales typically ask how frequently an emotion is experienced, or how intensely a stimulus elicits that emotion (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972; Spielberger, Jacobs, Russell, & Crane, 1983; Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994; Watson & Clark, 1994; Tangney, Dearing, Wagner, & Gramzow, 2000). A person who scores high on such a scale may do so because they have a low threshold for experiencing the emotion, or because of unique circumstances that increase emotional activation. So, while trait emotion is typically thought of as dispositional, it can also indicate chronic situational factors. To complicate matters further, the exact way that situational factors impact trait emotion appears to vary radically from emotion to emotion. Regular exposure to depressing life stimuli increases trait sadness (Spence, Najman, Bor, O’Callaghan, & Williams, 2002), whereas regular exposure to disgust-eliciting stimuli, such as cadavers and open wounds, lowers disgust sensitivity (Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2009). Whatever the underlying cause, a tendency to experience an emotion reflects persistent use of the neural pathways utilized in that emotion, which may lead to extensive and longstanding changes to how the emotion is processed. In short, what we call “trait emotion” bears no straightforward relationship to state emotion, and may not itself be a unified phenomenon.

There is another problem with emotion trait measures, one so obvious I almost forgot to mention it. Most studies that use emotion trait scales use them in correlational, not experimental, designs. This means that cause cannot be disentangled from effect. This limitation applies to another popular method in the field, which I’ll call motus operandi. Motus operandi involves presenting stimuli (in this case, moral scenarios), then measuring the emotions they evoke. This emotional response can be measured in a variety of ways, from self-report (Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2011; Lee & Ellsworth, in press) to behavior (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996) to psychophysiology (Chapman, Kim, Susskind, & Anderson, 2009) to neural activation (Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Moll et al., 2002). Motus operandi, when it leads to a measurable emotional response, is often used as evidence that moral judgment involves emotion. For instance, moral dilemmas involving a ’personal’ deontological moral violation (e.g. requiring an agent to push a person off of a footbridge in order to save five lives) generate greater activation in the brain areas associated with emotion (Greene, Nystrom, Engell, Darley, & Cohen, 2004). Greene and colleagues have used these results to argue that deontological reasoning relies on emotions more heavily than utilitarian reasoning.

But there is nothing in motus operandi that shows emotion has perturbed moral judgment in the slightest. All this method reveals is that emotion arises at approximately the same time as moral processing. The observed emotional response could be epiphenomenal; indeed, it could occur after the moral judgment has been formed. Even neuroimaging work, which has played such a pivotal role in reigniting discussions of emotion’s role in moral judgment, remains agnostic on this point. Imagine that motus operandi had higher temporal resolution, and could demonstrate that emotion preceded moral judgment—this still would not eliminate the possibility that the emotional response was epiphenomenal. (That said, to the extent that we do have mental chronometry evidence, it reveals that emotion is not the first morally relevant information to be processed by the brain; Decety & Cacioppo, 2012.) A few researchers have noted this problem with motus operandi, and have offered a variety of alternative explanations: perhaps emotion draws attention to morally relevant information (Decety, Michalska, & Kinzler, 2012), intensifies moral salience (Pizarro et al., 2011), or serves to motivate appropriate moral action (Huebner et al., 2009).

Unwarranted Assumption 2 (Temporal correlation/causation conflation)

Appearance of emotion at approximately the same time as moral judgment shows that the emotion plays a causal role in moral judgment.

To get purchase on the causality question, researchers must introduce a manipulation. When we talk about how emotion influences moral judgment, we generally mean how emotion, as elicited by the moral stimulus, helps give rise to the final judgment. This is referred to as integral emotion. A graphic description of a rape may incite a strong emotional reaction that influences our disapprobation of the act. But emotions can also linger, influencing subsequent, unrelated judgments. Having eaten a bad egg salad sandwich before entering the courtroom may have an undue influence on our verdict—this is incidental emotion. The fact that emotions are susceptible to misattribution is a useful quirk of the cognitive system which can be exploited by researchers.

It is generally treated as a matter of course that incidental emotion works the same as integral emotion. Indeed, this assumption forms the basis for the prominent use of emotion priming paradigms in the moral psychology literature. In an emotion priming paradigm, researchers induce an emotion in subjects—for instance, by showing a video or a series of pictures. Subjects then complete an ostensibly unrelated task, such as rating a series of acts for moral permissibility, hoping that the emotion in the first part of the experiment will spill over into the second part. The emotion priming paradigm relies on several assumptions, actually, but the one we will focus on at the moment is that misattributed (incidental) emotion works the same way as correctly attributed (integral) emotion.[2]

There is some, limited, evidence that incidental and integral emotion work in comparable ways. For instance, adding disgusting details to conventional violations moralizes them (integral emotion; Nichols, 2002), much as hypnosis-induced disgust moralizes the behavior of fictional characters (incidental emotion; Wheatley & Haidt, 2005. But it is far from an established certainty, and surprisingly, the issue has not been the object of systematic study.

There is good reason, though, to think that the two may not be equivalent. By definition, integral emotion can arise only after morally relevant information is first presented. When an emotion is primed, however, it is active before (often well before) any moral information is shown. Emotion can act in an orienting capacity, making certain information more salient (Phelps, Ling, & Carrasco, 2006; Harrison, Skau, Franconeri, Lu, & Chang, 2013). This is significant, because moral judgment is highly susceptible to the order in which information is presented (Petrinovich & O’Neill, 1996; Young & Saxe, 2008; Lombrozo, 2009; Schwitzgebel & Cushman, 2012; Wiegmann, Okan, Nagel, 2012). For instance, whether children weight intent or outcome more heavily in a moral scenario depends on which is presented closer to the time of the final judgment (a recency effect of sorts; Feldman, Klosson, Parsons, Rholes, & Ruble, 1976; Parsons, Ruble, Klosson, Feldman, & Rholes, 1976; Surber, 1982). Because emotion influences informational salience, its timing alongside the details of a moral scenario may differentially affect how those details are processed. It would therefore be wise to exercise caution when considering whether the effects of incidental emotion generalize to integral emotion.

Unwarranted Assumption 3 (Integral/incidental conflation)

Inducing an emotion and observing its effect on subsequent, unrelated tasks is equivalent to how the emotion works when it is integral to the task.

Increasingly, emotion priming paradigms have been recruited to make a very specific kind of claim: that observing an effect of incidental emotion on moral judgment demonstrates a special link between the two processes. Incidental emotion, so the argument goes, will only influence a subsequent cognitive process when emotion is usually a part of that process. Valdesolo and DeSteno (2006) found that a positive mood induction (in the form of a humorous video clip) affected judgments on a moral dilemma that appeals to deontological reasoning but not one that appeals more to utilitarian intuitions. This finding has been used to argue that deontological judgments rely on emotion but utilitarian judgments do not. Similar claims have been made for incidental emotion across various types of moral evaluation (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005; Strohminger, Lewis, & Meyer, 2011; Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2012; Seidel & Prinz, 2012; Cummins & Cummins, 2012).

The problem with this reasoning is emotion affects all manner of decidedly unemotional cognitive processes. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a mental operation impenetrable to incidental emotion; the list includes attention (Phelps et al., 2006; Stefanucci, Proffitt, Clore, & Parekh, 2008; Sherman, Haidt, & Clore, 2012), memory (Bower, 1981; Levine & Pizarro, 2004), test performance (Wine, 1971), math (Bryan & Bryan, 1991), assessments of monetary value (Lerner, Small, & Loewenstein, 2004), and heuristic reasoning (Kassam, Koslov, & Mendes, 2009; Inbar & Gilovich, 2011). Suppose we were to discover that putting people into a sad mood makes them perform worse on a math exam. No one would use this to argue that emotion is required for mathematical cognition. Yet this is precisely how emotion priming studies have been used to understand moral cognition.

Besides, one could easily make the opposite argument, that incidental emotion should only pervade cognitive processes that don’t use emotion, because those do not already have that channel occupied by competing emotional processing. In effect, emotion priming could be treated as an affective version of a cognitive load task (Payne, Hall, Cameron, & Bishara, 2010), where incidental emotion is most effective when the mind is not already engaged with other emotional processes. I have never seen anyone advocate for this view, though the logic strikes me as no less sound.

Unwarranted Assumption 4 (Emotion manipulation as normal operation)

If emotion influences a subsequent, unrelated task, then emotion is usually recruited to that task.

In a more sophisticated version of this argument, selective use of certain emotions reflects a functional relationship between emotion and moral domain. If an incidental emotion, such as disgust, affects a moral judgment, this could be used to argue that disgust is a ’moral’ emotion (Haidt, 2003). But this is a questionable strategy, as it would quickly lead one to rope in every emotion as a moral emotion: happiness, sadness, mirth, lust (Ariely & Loewenstein, 2006; Strohminger et al., 2011). Few emotions are active exclusively within the moral domain.

Or imagine that you have mapped individual emotions onto specific moral problems—disgust is recruited for violations of purity, anger for violations of autonomy, and contempt for violations of community (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999). In that case, you might expect to find that incidental disgust selectively affects judgments related to purity. However, no clear pattern using emotion priming has ever emerged aligning specific emotions to particular kinds of moral content. Studies show that disgust can selectively impact judgments of purity violations (Horberg et al., 2009), that disgust selectively does not impact purity violations, even though it impacts other types of moral judgment (Ugazio, Lamm, & Singer, 2012), that disgust impacts some purity violations but not others (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2012), that disgust has no selective effect across moral domains (Schnall et al., 2008), and that disgust impacts moral judgments on scenarios where there is no moral content present (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005). I do not think we should be shocked by the inadequacy of emotion priming to resolve such subtleties. If we can find that incidental disgust affects enjoyment of paintings and cartoons (Strohminger, 2013), why should it be any more selective when it comes to moral judgment? It may well be that certain emotions are more often recruited for certain types of moral problem, but using incidental emotion to adjudicate on this issue is folly.

Quite recently, some replications and meta-analyses have come out suggesting that incidental disgust does not impact moral judgment at all (Landy & Goodwin, 2015; Johnson et al., 2016). At first blush, this may seem like a terrible blow—and indeed it is a blow, but only for the existence of the basic effect. This analysis is not at all devastating for the deeper question of the role disgust normally plays in moral judgment, for the reasons outlined above. Incidental disgust tells us very little—perhaps as little as nothing at all—about whether disgust is normally recruited during moral cognition, and if so, how disgust impacts moral judgment.

Some may take comfort in this. But this should also be an opportunity for sober reflection. Emotion priming was long held as a critical piece of evidence as to the constitutive role of disgust in moral judgment, when all along it was just a tinker toy. This fundamental mistake marks an opportunity for us to begin thinking more carefully about our methods. The kinds of claims they can be used to support, and the kinds of claims they cannot.



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[1] Researchers distinguish between emotions and other affective states, such as moods. However, when it comes to the processes underlying moral judgment, the critical question is whether any kind of affective state influences moral judgment. Therefore I treat emotion and mood as interchangeable for the purposes of this discussion, as they both speak to the same problem.


[2] Emotion priming paradigms can also be used to motivate a purely pragmatic argument: This is what happens when an unrelated emotion is introduced to a sterile field. Results like this become important when one is trying to design environments that allow judgment and decision-making to proceed in a fair and unbiased manner. For this more industrial use, I have no quarrel: but it speaks nothing to cognitive process.


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