Strohminger, N. and Nichols, S. (in press).
The Essential Moral Self. Cognition.
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.
The studies described here illustrate several points about lay theories of personal identity. The ﬁrst, most basic, point is that not all parts of the mind are equally constitutive of the self, challenging a straightforward view of psychological continuity. Identity does not simply depend on the magnitude of retained mental content; indeed, certain cognitive processes contribute less to identity than purely physical traits.
Across ﬁve experiments, we ﬁnd strong and unequivocal support for the essential moral self hypothesis. Moral traits are considered more important to personal identity than any other part of the mind.
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