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Monday, January 23, 2023

Moral Thin-Slicing

De Freitas, Julian and Hafri, Alon
(December 1, 2022).
Harvard Business School Marketing Unit
Harvard Business Working Paper No. 23-002


Given limits on time and attention, people increasingly make moral evaluations in a few seconds or less, yet it is unknown whether such snap judgments are accurate or not. On one hand, the literature suggests that people form fast moral impressions once they already know what has transpired (i.e., who did what to whom, and whether there was harm involved), but how long does it take for them to extract and integrate these ‘moral atoms’ from a visual scene in the first place to decide who is morally wrong? Using controlled stimuli, we find that people are capable of ‘moral thin-slicing’: they reliably identify moral transgressions from visual scenes presented in the blink of an eye (< 100 ms). Across four studies, we show that this remarkable ability arises because observers independently and rapidly extract the atoms of moral judgment — event roles (who acted on whom) and harm level (harmful or unharmful). In sum, despite the rapid rate at which people view provocative moral transgressions online, as when consuming viral videos on social media or negative news about companies’ actions toward customers, their snap moral judgments about visual events can be surprisingly accurate.

From the General Discussion

How Is Moral Thin-Slicing So Fast?

Given that people are more accurate at snap moral judgments than one would think, how is this possible? The current work adds to the literature on how the mind computes moral judgments, by suggesting that such judgments do not have to be slow and effortful; rather, the human visual system in some cases rapidly extracts the high-level information on which moral judgment depends, such as role and harm. Furthermore, the visual system not only extracts such information, which previous literature in some cases has provided evidence for (Hafri et al., 2013; 2018; De Freitas & Alvarez, 2018), but it integrates these moral ‘atoms’ such that they inform moral judgments about events viewed at a brief glance. Notably, this integration was not a given, as there are many cases in other areas of psychology where disparate sources of visual or spatial information fail to be integrated towards a common behavioral goal (e.g., for grasping an object, or reorienting in an unfamiliar environment; Rossetti, 1998; Hermer-Vasquez et al., 1999).

Of course, despite the ability to make moral judgments quickly from a brief glance, this does not mean that people do not sometimes slowly deliberate over whether an event was causal, harmful, and so forth, which thought experiments like the trolley problem clearly illustrate (although such scenarios are overly contrived, and deliberately designed to stump readers; De Freitas, Anthony, Censi, & Alvarez, 2020; De Freitas et al., 2021). Yet the current results suggest that the visual system helps produce a rapid moral judgment when confronted with a range of typical social interactions, circumventing the need to deliberatively mull over this information.

As such, these findings stand in contrast to the characterization of moral judgment as reliant on purely rational inferences about inputs such as causation, harm, etc. without substantive contribution from sensory processing (Martinez & Jaeger, 2016; Olson, McFerran, Morales, & Dahl, 2016; Xie, Yu, Zhou, Sedikides, & Vohs, 2014). These characterizations suggest that visual processing is involved in moral judgment only in a rudimentary sense, e.g., to recognize colors or objects, and their spatial locations within an image.