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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Moral “foundations” as the product of motivated social cognition: Empathy and other psychological underpinnings of ideological divergence in “individualizing” and “binding” concerns

Strupp-Levitsky M, et al.
PLoS ONE 15(11): e0241144. 


According to moral foundations theory, there are five distinct sources of moral intuition on which political liberals and conservatives differ. The present research program seeks to contextualize this taxonomy within the broader research literature on political ideology as motivated social cognition, including the observation that conservative judgments often serve system-justifying functions. In two studies, a combination of regression and path modeling techniques were used to explore the motivational underpinnings of ideological differences in moral intuitions. Consistent with our integrative model, the “binding” foundations (in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity) were associated with epistemic and existential needs to reduce uncertainty and threat and system justification tendencies, whereas the so-called “individualizing” foundations (fairness and avoidance of harm) were generally unrelated to epistemic and existential motives and were instead linked to empathic motivation. Taken as a whole, these results are consistent with the position taken by Hatemi, Crabtree, and Smith that moral “foundations” are themselves the product of motivated social cognition.

Concluding remarks

Taken in conjunction, the results presented here lead to several conclusions that should be of relevance to social scientists who study morality, social justice, and political ideology. First, we observe that so-called “binding” moral concerns pertaining to ingroup loyalty, authority, and purity are psychologically linked to epistemic and, to a lesser extent, existential motives to reduce uncertainty and threat. Second, so-called “individualizing” concerns for fairness and avoidance of harm are not linked to these same motives. Rather, they seem to be driven largely by empathic sensitivity. Third, it would appear that theories of moral foundations and motivated social cognition are in some sense compatible, as suggested by Van Leeuween and Park, rather than incompatible, as suggested by Haidt and Graham and Haidt. That is, the motivational basis of conservative preferences for “binding” intuitions seems to be no different than the motivational basis for many other conservative preferences, including system justification and the epistemic and existential motives that are presumed to underlie system justification.