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Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Affective Harm Account (AHA) of Moral Judgment: Reconciling Cognition and Affect, Dyadic Morality and Disgust, Harm and Purity

Kurt Gray, Jennifer K. MacCormack, et al.
In Press (2022)
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Moral psychology has long debated whether moral judgment is rooted in harm vs. affect. We reconcile this debate with the Affective Harm Account (AHA) of moral judgment. The AHA understands harm as an intuitive perception (i.e., perceived harm), and divides “affect” into two: embodied visceral arousal (i.e., gut feelings) and stimulus-directed affective appraisals (e.g., ratings of disgustingness). The AHA was tested in a randomized, double-blind pharmacological experiment with healthy young adults judging the immorality, harmfulness, and disgustingness of everyday moral scenarios (e.g., lying) and unusual purity scenarios (e.g., sex with a corpse) after receiving either a placebo or the beta-blocker propranolol (a drug that dampens visceral arousal). Results confirmed the three key hypotheses of the AHA. First, perceived harm and affective appraisals are neither competing nor independent but intertwined. Second, although
both perceived harm and affective appraisals predict moral judgment, perceived harm is consistently relevant across all scenarios (in line with the Theory of Dyadic Morality), whereas affective appraisals are especially relevant in unusual purity scenarios (in line with affect-as-information theory). Third, the “gut feelings” of visceral arousal are not as important to morality as often believed. Dampening visceral arousal (via propranolol) did not directly impact moral judgment, but instead changed the relative contribution of affective appraisals to moral judgment—and only in unusual purity scenarios. By embracing a constructionist view of the mind that blurs traditional dichotomies, the AHA reconciles historic harm-centric and current affect-centric theories, parsimoniously explaining judgment differences across various moral scenarios without requiring any “moral foundations.”


Moral psychology has long debated whether moral judgment is grounded in affect or harm. Seeking to reconcile these apparently competing perspectives, we have proposed an Affective Harm Account (AHA) of moral judgment. This account is conciliatory because it highlights the importance of both perceived harm and affect, not as competing considerations but as joint partners—two different horses yoked together pulling the cart of moral judgment.

The AHA also adds clarity to the previously murky nature of “affect” in moral psychology, differentiating it both in nature and measurement as (at least) two phenomena—embodied, free-floating, visceral arousal (i.e., “gut feelings”) and self-reported, context-bound, affective appraisals (i.e., “this situation is gross”). The importance of affect in moral judgment—especially the “gut feelings” of visceral arousal—was tested via administration of propranolol, which dampens visceral arousal via beta-adrenergic receptor blockade. Importantly, propranolol allows us to manipulate more general visceral arousal (rather than targeting a specific organ, like the gut, or a specific state, like nausea). This increases the potential generalizability of these findings to other moral scenarios (beyond disgust) where visceral arousal might be relevant. We measured the effect of propranolol (vs. placebo) on ratings of moral condemnation, perceived harm, and affective appraisals (i.e., operationalized as ratings of disgust, as in much past work). These ratings were obtained for both everyday moral scenarios (Hofmann et al., 2018)—which are dyadic in structure and thus obviously linked to harm—and for unusual purity scenarios, which are frequently linked to affective appraisals of disgust (Horberg et al., 2009). This study offers support for the three hypotheses of the AHA.