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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Constructionist Review of Morality and Emotions: No Evidence for Specific Links Between Moral Content and Discrete Emotions

Cameron, C. D., Lindquist, K. A., & Gray, K. (2015). 
Personality and Social Psychology Review
19(4), 371–394.


Morality and emotions are linked, but what is the nature of their correspondence? Many “whole number” accounts posit specific correspondences between moral content and discrete emotions, such that harm is linked to anger, and purity is linked to disgust. A review of the literature provides little support for these specific morality–emotion links. Moreover, any apparent specificity may arise from global features shared between morality and emotion, such as affect and conceptual content. These findings are consistent with a constructionist perspective of the mind, which argues against a whole number of discrete and domain-specific mental mechanisms underlying morality and emotion. Instead, constructionism emphasizes the flexible combination of basic and domain-general ingredients such as core affect and conceptualization in creating the experience of moral judgments and discrete emotions. The implications of constructionism in moral psychology are discussed, and we propose an experimental framework for rigorously testing morality–emotion links.


The tension between whole number and constructionist accounts has existed in psychology since its beginning (e.g., Darwin, 1872/2005 vs. James, 1890; see Gendron & Barrett, 2009; Lindquist, 2013). Commonsense and essentialism suggest the existence of distinct and immutable psychological constructs. The intuitiveness of whole number accounts is reinforced by the communicative usefulness of distinguishing harm from purity (Graham et al., 2009), and anger from disgust (Barrett, 2006; Lindquist, Gendron, et al., 2013), but utility does not equal ontology. As decades of psychological research have demonstrated, intuitive experiences are poor guides to the structure of the mind (Barrett, 2009; Davies, 2009; James, 1890; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977; Roser & Gazzaniga, 2004; Ross & Ward, 1996; Wegner, 2003).  Although initially less intuitive, we suggest that constructionist approaches are actually better at capturing the nature of the powerful subjective phenomena long treasured by social psychologists (Gray & Wegner, 2013; Wegner & Gilbert, 2000). Whereas whole number theories impose taxonomies onto human experience and treat variability as noise or error, constructionist theories allow that experience is complex and messy. Rather than assuming that human experience is “wrong” when it fails to conform to a preferred taxonomy, constructionist theories appreciate this diversity and use domain-general mechanisms to explain it. Returning to our opening example, Jack and Diane may be soul-mates with a love that is unique, unchanging, and eternal, or they may just be two similar American kids who feel the rush of youth and the heat of a summer’s day. The first may be more romantic, but the second is more likely to be true.