Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy
Showing posts with label Emotions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emotions. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Perceptions of Falling Behind “Most White People”: Within-Group Status Comparisons Predict Fewer Positive Emotions and Worse Health Over Time Among White (but Not Black) Americans

Caluori, N., Cooley, E., et al. (2024).
Psychological Science, 35(2), 175-190.


Despite the persistence of anti-Black racism, White Americans report feeling worse off than Black Americans. We suggest that some White Americans may report low well-being despite high group-level status because of perceptions that they are falling behind their in-group. Using census-based quota sampling, we measured status comparisons and health among Black (N = 452, Wave 1) and White (N = 439, Wave 1) American adults over a period of 6 to 7 weeks. We found that Black and White Americans tended to make status comparisons within their own racial groups and that most Black participants felt better off than their racial group, whereas most White participants felt worse off than their racial group. Moreover, we found that White Americans’ perceptions of falling behind “most White people” predicted fewer positive emotions at a subsequent time, which predicted worse sleep quality and depressive symptoms in the future. Subjective within-group status did not have the same consequences among Black participants.

Here is my succinct summary:

Despite their high group status, many White Americans experience poor well-being due to the perception that they are lagging behind their in-group. In contrast, Black Americans feel relatively better off within their racial group, while White Americans feel comparatively worse off within theirs.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Why People Fail to Notice Horrors Around Them

Tali Sharot and Cass R. Sunstein
The New York Times
Originally posted 25 Feb 24

The miraculous history of our species is peppered with dark stories of oppression, tyranny, bloody wars, savagery, murder and genocide. When looking back, we are often baffled and ask: Why weren't the horrors halted earlier? How could people have lived with them?

The full picture is immensely complicated. But a significant part of it points to the rules that govern the operations of the human brain.

Extreme political movements, as well as deadly conflicts, often escalate slowly. When threats start small and increase gradually, they end up eliciting a weaker emotional reaction, less resistance and more acceptance than they would otherwise. The slow increase allows larger and larger horrors to play out in broad daylight- taken for granted, seen as ordinary.

One of us is a neuroscientist; the other is a law professor. From our different fields, we have come to believe that it is not possible to understand the current period - and the shifts in what counts as normal - without appreciating why and how people do not notice so much of what we live with.

The underlying reason is a pivotal biological feature of our brain: habituation, or our tendency to respond less and less to things that are constant or that change slowly. You enter a cafe filled with the smell of coffee and at first the smell is overwhelming, but no more than 20 minutes go by and you cannot smell it any longer. This is because your olfactory neurons stop firing in response to a now-familiar odor.

Similarly, you stop hearing the persistent buzz of an air-conditioner because your brain filters out background noise. Your brain cares about what recently changed, not about what remained the same.
Habituation is one of our most basic biological characteristics - something that we two-legged, bigheaded creatures share with other animals on earth, including apes, elephants, dogs, birds, frogs, fish and rats. Human beings also habituate to complex social circumstances such as war, corruption, discrimination, oppression, widespread misinformation and extremism. Habituation does not only result in a reduced tendency to notice and react to grossly immoral deeds around us; it also increases the likelihood that we will engage in them ourselves.

Here is my summary:

From a psychological perspective, the failure to notice horrors around us can be attributed to cognitive biases and the human tendency to see reality in predictable yet flawed ways. This phenomenon is linked to how individuals perceive and value certain aspects of their environment. Personal values play a crucial role in shaping our perceptions and emotional responses. When there is a discrepancy between our self-perception and reality, it can lead to various troubles as our values define us and influence how we react to events. Additionally, the concept of safety needs is highlighted as a mediating factor in mental disorders induced by stressful events. The unexpected nature of events can trigger fear and anger, while the anticipation of events can induce calmness. This interplay between safety needs, emotions, and pathological conditions underscores how individuals react to perceived threats and unexpected situations, impacting their mental well-being

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Unraveling the Mindset of Victimhood

Scott Barry Kaufman
Scientific American
Originally posted 29 June 2020

Here is an excerpt:

Constantly seeking recognition of one’s victimhood. Those who score high on this dimension have a perpetual need to have their suffering acknowledged. In general, this is a normal psychological response to trauma. Experiencing trauma tends to “shatter our assumptions” about the world as a just and moral place. Recognition of one’s victimhood is a normal response to trauma and can help reestablish a person’s confidence in their perception of the world as a fair and just place to live.

Also, it is normal for victims to want the perpetrators to take responsibility for their wrongdoing and to express feelings of guilt. Studies conducted on testimonies of patients and therapists have found that validation of the trauma is important for therapeutic recovery from trauma and victimization (see here and here).

A sense of moral elitism. Those who score high on this dimension perceive themselves as having an immaculate morality and view everyone else as being immoral. Moral elitism can be used to control others by accusing others of being immoral, unfair or selfish, while seeing oneself as supremely moral and ethical.

Moral elitism often develops as a defense mechanism against deeply painful emotions and as a way to maintain a positive self-image. As a result, those under distress tend to deny their own aggressiveness and destructive impulses and project them onto others. The “other” is perceived as threatening whereas the self is perceived as persecuted, vulnerable and morally superior.

Here is a summary:

Kaufman explores the concept of "interpersonal victimhood," a tendency to view oneself as the repeated target of unfair treatment by others. He identifies several key characteristics of this mindset, including:
  • Belief in inherent unfairness: The conviction that the world is fundamentally unjust and that one is disproportionately likely to experience harm.
  • Moral self-righteousness: The perception of oneself as more ethical and deserving of good treatment compared to others.
  • Rumination on past injustices: Dwelling on and replaying negative experiences, often with feelings of anger and resentment.
  • Difficulty taking responsibility: Attributing negative outcomes to external factors rather than acknowledging one's own role.
Kaufman argues that while acknowledging genuine injustices is important, clinging to a victimhood identity can be detrimental. It can hinder personal growth, strain relationships, and fuel negativity. He emphasizes the importance of developing a more balanced perspective, acknowledging both external challenges and personal agency. The article offers strategies for fostering resilience

Saturday, February 17, 2024

What Stops People From Standing Up for What’s Right?

Julie Sasse
Greater Good
Originally published 17 Jan 24

Here is an excerpt:

How can we foster moral courage?

Every person can try to become more morally courageous. However, it does not have to be a solitary effort. Instead, institutions such as schools, companies, or social media platforms play a significant role. So, what are concrete recommendations to foster moral courage?
  • Establish and strengthen social and moral norms: With a solid understanding of what we consider right and wrong, it becomes easier to detect wrongdoings. Institutions can facilitate this process by identifying and modeling fundamental values. For example, norms and values expressed by teachers can be important points of reference for children and young adults.
  • Overcome uncertainty: If it is unclear whether someone’s behavior is wrong, witnesses should feel comfortable to inquire, for example, by asking other bystanders how they judge the situation or a potential victim whether they are all right.
  • Contextualize anger: In the face of wrongdoings, anger should not be suppressed since it can provide motivational fuel for intervention. Conversely, if someone expresses anger, it should not be diminished as irrational but considered a response to something unjust. 
  • Provide and advertise reporting systems: By providing reporting systems, institutions relieve witnesses from the burden of selecting and evaluating individual means of intervention and reduce the need for direct confrontation.
  • Show social support: If witnesses directly confront a perpetrator, others should be motivated to support them to reduce risks.
We see that there are several ways to make moral courage less difficult, but they do require effort from individuals and institutions. Why is that effort worth it? Because if more individuals are willing and able to show moral courage, more wrongdoings would be addressed and rectified—and that could help us to become a more responsible and just society.

Main points:
  • Moral courage is the willingness to stand up for what's right despite potential risks.
  • It's rare because of various factors like complexity of the internal process, situational barriers, and difficulty seeing the long-term benefits.
  • Key stages involve noticing a wrongdoing, interpreting it as wrong, feeling responsible, believing in your ability to intervene, and accepting potential risks.
  • Personality traits and situational factors influence these stages.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Limits of Informed Consent for an Overwhelmed Patient: Clinicians’ Role in Protecting Patients and Preventing Overwhelm

J. Bester, C.M. Cole, & E. Kodish.
AMA J Ethics. 2016;18(9):869-886.
doi: 10.1001/journalofethics.2016.18.9.peer2-1609.


In this paper, we examine the limits of informed consent with particular focus on ways in which various factors can overwhelm decision-making capacity. We introduce overwhelm as a phenomenon commonly experienced by patients in clinical settings and distinguish between emotional overwhelm and informational overload. We argue that in these situations, a clinician’s primary duty is prevention of harm and suggest ways in which clinicians can discharge this obligation. To illustrate our argument, we consider the clinical application of genetic sequencing testing, which involves scientific and technical information that can compromise the understanding and decisional capacity of most patients. Finally, we consider and rebut objections that this could lead to paternalism.


Overwhelm and Information Overload

The claim we defend is a simple one: there are medical situations in which the information involved in making a decision is of such a nature that the decision-making capacity of a patient is overwhelmed by the sheer complexity or volume of information at hand. In such cases a patient cannot attain the understanding necessary for informed decision making, and informed consent is therefore not possible. We will support our thesis regarding informational overload by focusing specifically on the area of clinical whole genome sequencing—i.e., identification of an individual’s entire genome, enabling the identification and interaction of multiple genetic variants—as distinct from genetic testing, which tests for specific genetic variants.

We will first present ethical considerations regarding informed consent. Next, we will present three sets of factors that can burden the capacity of a patient to provide informed consent for a specific decision—patient, communication, and information factors—and argue that these factors may in some circumstances make it impossible for a patient to provide informed consent. We will then discuss emotional overwhelm and informational overload and consider how being overwhelmed affects informed consent. Our interest in this essay is mainly in informational overload; we will therefore consider whole genome sequencing as an example in which informational factors overwhelm a patient’s decision-making capacity. Finally, we will offer suggestions as to how the duty to protect patients from harm can be discharged when informed consent is not possible because of emotional overwhelm or informational overload.


How should clinicians respond to such situations?

Surrogate decision making. One possible solution to the problem of informed consent when decisional capacity is compromised is to seek a surrogate decision maker. However, in situations of informational overload, this may not solve the problem. If the information has inherent qualities that would overwhelm a reasonable patient, it is likely to also overwhelm a surrogate. Unless the surrogate decision maker is a content expert who also understands the values of the patient, a surrogate decision maker will not solve the problem of informed consent. Surrogate decision making may, however, be useful for the emotionally overwhelmed patient who remains unable to provide informed consent despite additional support.

Shared decision making. Another possible solution is to make use of shared decision making (SDM). This approach relies on deliberation between clinician and patient regarding available health care choices, taking the best evidence into account. The clinician actively involves the patient and elicits patient values. The goal of SDM is often stated as helping patients arrive at informed decisions that respect what matters most to them.

It is not clear, however, that SDM will be successful in facilitating informed decisions when an informed consent process has failed. SDM as a tool for informed decision making is at its core dependent on the patient understanding the options presented and being able to describe the preferred option. Understanding and deliberating about what is at stake for each option is a key component of this use of SDM. Therefore, if the medical information is so complex that it overloads the patient’s decision-making capacity, SDM is unlikely to achieve informed decision making. But if a patient is emotionally overwhelmed by the illness experience and all that accompanies it, a process of SDM and support for the patient may eventually facilitate informed decision making.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Social Media and Morality

Van Bavel, J. J., Robertson, C. et al. (2023, June 6).


Nearly five billion people around the world now use social media, and this number continues to grow. One of the primary goals of social media platforms is to capture and monetize human attention. One means by which individuals and groups can capture attention and drive engagement on these platforms is by sharing morally and emotionally evocative content. We review a growing body of research on the interrelationship of social media and morality–as well the consequences for individuals and society. Moral content often goes “viral” on social media, and social media makes moral behavior (such as punishment) less costly. Thus, social media often acts as an accelerant for existing moral dynamics – amplifying outrage, status seeking, and intergroup conflict, while also potentially amplifying more constructive facets of morality, such as social support, pro-sociality, and collective action. We discuss trends, heated debates, and future directions in this emerging literature.

From Discussions and Future Directions

Addressing the interplay between social media and morality 

There is a growing recognition among scholars and the public that social media has deleterious consequences for society and there is a growing appetite for greater transparency and some form of regulation of social media platforms (Rathje et al., 2023). To address the adverse consequences of social media, solutions at the system level are necessary (e.g., Chater & Loewenstein, 2022), but individual- or group-level solutions may be useful for creating behavioral change before system-level change is in place and for increasing public support for system-level solutions (Koppel et. al., 2023). In the following section, we discuss a range of solutions that address the adverse consequences of the interplay between social media and morality.

Regulation is one of the most heavily debated ways of mitigating the adverse features of social media. Regulating social media can be done both on platforms as well at the national or cross-national level, but always involves discussions about who should decide what should be allowed on which platforms (Kaye, 2019). Currently, there is relatively little editorial oversight with the content even on mainstream platforms, yet the connotations with censorship makes regulation inherently controversial. For instance, Americans believe that social media companies censor political viewpoints (Vogels et al., 2020) and believe it is hard to regulate social media because people cannot agree upon what should and should not be removed (PewResearch Center, 2019). Moreover, authoritarian states can suppress dissent through the regulation of speech on social media.

In general, people on the political left are supportive of regulating social media platforms (Kozyreva, 2023; Rasmussen, 2022), reflecting liberals’ general tendency to more supportive, and conservatives' tendency to more opposing, of regulatory policies (e.g. Grossman, 2015). In the context of content on social media, one explanation is that left-leaning people infer more harm from aggressive behaviors. In other words, they may perceive immoral behaviors on social media as more harmful for the victim, which in turn justifies regulation (Graham 2009; Crawford 2017; Walter 2019; Boch 2020). There are conflicting results, however, on whether people oppose regulating hate speech (Bilewicz et. al. 2017; Rasmussen 2023a) because they use hate to derogate minority and oppressed groups (Sidanius, Pratto, and Bobo 1996; Federico and Sidanius, 2002) or because of principled political preferences deriving from conservatism values (Grossman 2016; Grossman 2015; Sniderman & Carmines, 1997; Sniderman & Piazza, 1993; Sniderman, Piazza, Tetlock, & Kendrick, 1991). While sensitivity to harm contributes to making people on the political left more supportive of regulating social media, it is contested whether opposition from the political right derives from group-based dominance or principled opposition.

Click the link above to get to the research.

Here is a summary from me:
  • Social media can influence our moral judgments. Studies have shown that people are more likely to make moral judgments that align with the views of their social media friends and the content they consume on social media. For example, one study found that people who were exposed to pro-environmental content on social media were more likely to make moral judgments that favored environmental protection.
  • Social media can lead to moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is a psychological process that allows people to justify harmful or unethical behavior. Studies have shown that social media can contribute to moral disengagement by making it easier for people to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions. For example, one study found that people who were exposed to violent content on social media were more likely to engage in moral disengagement.
  • Social media can promote prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is behavior that is helpful or beneficial to others. Studies have shown that social media can promote prosocial behavior by connecting people with others who share their values and by providing opportunities for people to help others. For example, one study found that people who used social media to connect with others were more likely to volunteer their time to help others.
  • Social media can be used to spread misinformation and hate speech. Misinformation is false or misleading information that is spread intentionally or unintentionally. Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, or sexual orientation. Social media platforms have been used to spread misinformation and hate speech, which can have a negative impact on society.
Overall, the research on social media and morality suggests that social media can have both positive and negative effects on our moral judgments and behavior. It is important to be aware of the potential risks and benefits of social media and to use it in a way that promotes positive moral values.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Characterizing empathy and compassion using computational linguistic analysis

Yaden, D. B., Giorgi, S., et al. (2023). 
Emotion. Advance online publication.


Many scholars have proposed that feeling what we believe others are feeling—often known as “empathy”—is essential for other-regarding sentiments and plays an important role in our moral lives. Caring for and about others (without necessarily sharing their feelings)—often known as “compassion”—is also frequently discussed as a relevant force for prosocial motivation and action. Here, we explore the relationship between empathy and compassion using the methods of computational linguistics. Analyses of 2,356,916 Facebook posts suggest that individuals (N = 2,781) high in empathy use different language than those high in compassion, after accounting for shared variance between these constructs. Empathic people, controlling for compassion, often use self-focused language and write about negative feelings, social isolation, and feeling overwhelmed. Compassionate people, controlling for empathy, often use other-focused language and write about positive feelings and social connections. In addition, high empathy without compassion is related to negative health outcomes, while high compassion without empathy is related to positive health outcomes, positive lifestyle choices, and charitable giving. Such findings favor an approach to moral motivation that is grounded in compassion rather than empathy.

From the General Discussion

Linguistic topics related to compassion (without empathy) and empathy (without compassion) show clear relationships with four of the five personality factors. Topics related to compassion without empathy are marked by higher conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Empathy without compassion topics are more associated with introversion and are also moderately associated with neuroticism and lower conscientiousness.  The association of low emotional stability and conscientiousness is also in line with prior research that found “distress,”a construct with important parallels to empathy, being associated with fleeing from a helping situation (Batson et al., 1987) and with lower helping(Jordan et al., 2016;Schroeder et al., 1988; Twenge et al., 2007; and others).

In sum, it appears that compassion without empathy and empathy without compassion are at least somewhat distinct and have unique predictive validity in personality, health, and prosocial behavior.  While the mechanisms through which these different relationships occur remain unknown, some previous work bears on this issue.  As mentioned, other work has found that merely focusing on others resulted in more intentions to help others (Bloom, 2017;Davis,1983;Jordan et al., 2016), which helps to explain the relationship between the more other-focused compassion and donation behavior that we observed.

In sum, high empathy without compassion is related to negative health outcomes, while high compassion without empathy is related to positive health outcomes. These findings suggest that compassion may be a more important factor for moral motivation than empathy.  Too much empathy may be overwhelming for high quality care.  Care about feelings, don't absorb the sharing of feelings.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Consciousness begins with feeling, not thinking

A. Damasio & H. Dimasio
Originally posted 20 APR 23

Please pause for a moment and notice what you are feeling now. Perhaps you notice a growing snarl of hunger in your stomach or a hum of stress in your chest. Perhaps you have a feeling of ease and expansiveness, or the tingling anticipation of a pleasure soon to come. Or perhaps you simply have a sense that you exist. Hunger and thirst, pain, pleasure and distress, along with the unadorned but relentless feelings of existence, are all examples of ‘homeostatic feelings’. Homeostatic feelings are, we argue here, the source of consciousness.

In effect, feelings are the mental translation of processes occurring in your body as it strives to balance its many systems, achieve homeostasis, and keep you alive. In a conventional sense feelings are part of the mind and yet they offer something extra to the mental processes. Feelings carry spontaneously conscious knowledge concerning the current state of the organism as a result of which you can act to save your life, such as when you respond to pain or thirst appropriately. The continued presence of feelings provides a continued perspective over the ongoing body processes; the presence of feelings lets the mind experience the life process along with other contents present in your mind, namely, the relentless perceptions that collect knowledge about the world along with reasonings, calculations, moral judgments, and the translation of all these contents in language form. By providing the mind with a ‘felt point of view’, feelings generate an ‘experiencer’, usually known as a self. The great mystery of consciousness in fact is the mystery behind the biological construction of this experiencer-self.

In sum, we propose that consciousness is the result of the continued presence of homeostatic feelings. We continuously experience feelings of one kind or another, and feelings naturally tell each of us, automatically, not only that we exist but that we exist in a physical body, vulnerable to discomfort yet open to countless pleasures as well. Feelings such as pain or pleasure provide you with consciousness, directly; they provide transparent knowledge about you. They tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you exist and where you exist, and point to what you need to do to continue existing – for example, treating pain or taking advantage of the well-being that came your way. Feelings illuminate all the other contents of mind with the light of consciousness, both the plain events and the sublime ideas. Thanks to feelings, consciousness fuses the body and mind processes and gives our selves a home inside that partnership.

That consciousness should come ‘down’ to feelings may surprise those who have been led to associate consciousness with the lofty top of the physiological heap. Feelings have been considered inferior to reason for so long that the idea that they are not only the noble beginning of sentient life but an important governor of life’s proceedings may be difficult to accept. Still, feelings and the consciousness they beget are largely about the simple but essential beginnings of sentient life, a life that is not merely lived but knows that it is being lived.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Why Americans Hate Political Division but Can’t Resist Being Divisive

Will Blakely & Kurt Gray
Moral Understanding Substack
Originally posted 21 FEB 23

No one likes polarization. According to a recent poll, 93% of Americans say it is important to reduce the country's current divides, including two-thirds who say it is very important to do so. In a recent Five-Thirty-Eight poll, out of a list of 20 issues, polarization ranked third on a list of the most important issues facing America. Which is… puzzling.

The puzzle is this: How can we be so divided if no one wants to be? Who are the hypocrites causing division and hatred while paying lip service to compromise and tolerance?

If you ask everyday Americans, they’ve got their answer. It’s the elites. Tucker Carlson, AOC, Donald Trump, and MSNBC. While these actors certainly are polarizing, it takes two to tango. We, the people, share some of the blame too. Even us, writing this newsletter, and even you, dear reader.

But this leaves us with a tricky question, why would we contribute to a divide that we can’t stand? To answer this question, we need to understand the biases and motivations that influence how we answer the question, “Who’s at fault here?” And more importantly, we need to understand the strategies that can get us out of conflict.

The Blame Game

The Blame Game comes in two flavors: either/or. Adam or Eve, Will Smith or Chris Rock, Amber Heard or Jonny Depp. When assigning blame in bad situations, our minds are dramatic. Psychology studies show that we tend to assign 100% of the blame to the person we see as the aggressor, and 0% to the side we see as the victim. So, what happens when all the people who are against polarization assign blame for polarization? You guessed it. They give 100% of the blame to the opposing party and 0% to their own. They “morally typecast” themselves as 100% the victim of polarization and the other side as 100% the perpetrator.

We call this moral “typecasting” because people’s minds firmly cast others into roles of victim and victimizer in the same way that actors get typecasted in certain roles. In the world of politics, if you’re a Democrat, you cast Republicans as victimizers, as consistently as Hollywood directors cast Kevin Hart as comic relief and Danny Trejo as a laconic villain.

But why do we rush to this all-or-nothing approach when the world is certainly more complicated? It’s because our brains love simplicity. In the realm of blame, we want one simple cause. In his recent book, “Complicit” Max Bazerman, professor at Harvard Business School, illustrated just how widespread this “monocausality bias” is. Bazerman gave a group of business executives the opportunity to allocate blame after reviewing a case of business fraud. 62 of the 78 business leaders wrote only one cause. Despite being given ample time and a myriad set of potential causes, these executives intuitively reached for their Ockham’s razor. In the same way, we all rush to blame a sputtering economy on the president, a loss on a kicker’s missed field goal, or polarization on the other side.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Are there really so many moral emotions? Carving morality at its functional joints

Fitouchi L., André J., & Baumard N.
To appear in L. Al-Shawaf & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.)
The Oxford Handbook of Evolution and the Emotions.
New York: Oxford University Press.


In recent decades, a large body of work has highlighted the importance of emotional processes in moral cognition. Since then, a heterogeneous bundle of emotions as varied as anger, guilt, shame, contempt, empathy, gratitude, and disgust have been proposed to play an essential role in moral psychology.  However, the inclusion of these emotions in the moral domain often lacks a clear functional rationale, generating conflations between merely social and properly moral emotions. Here, we build on (i) evolutionary theories of morality as an adaptation for attracting others’ cooperative investments, and on (ii) specifications of the distinctive form and content of moral cognitive representations. On this basis, we argue that only indignation (“moral anger”) and guilt can be rigorously characterized as moral emotions, operating on distinctively moral representations. Indignation functions to reclaim benefits to which one is morally entitled, without exceeding the limits of justice. Guilt functions to motivate individuals to compensate their violations of moral contracts. By contrast, other proposed moral emotions (e.g. empathy, shame, disgust) appear only superficially associated with moral cognitive contents and adaptive challenges. Shame doesn’t track, by design, the respect of moral obligations, but rather social valuation, the two being not necessarily aligned. Empathy functions to motivate prosocial behavior between interdependent individuals, independently of, and sometimes even in contradiction with the prescriptions of moral intuitions. While disgust is often hypothesized to have acquired a moral role beyond its pathogen-avoidance function, we argue that both evolutionary rationales and psychological evidence for this claim remain inconclusive for now.


In this chapter, we have suggested that a specification of the form and function of moral representations leads to a clearer picture of moral emotions. In particular, it enables a principled distinction between moral and non-moral emotions, based on the particular types of cognitive representations they process. Moral representations have a specific content: they represent a precise quantity of benefits that cooperative partners owe each other, a legitimate allocation of costs and benefits that ought to be, irrespective of whether it is achieved by people’s actual behaviors. Humans intuit that they have a duty not to betray their coalition, that innocent people do not deserve to be harmed, that their partner has a right not to be cheated on. Moral emotions can thus be defined as superordinate programs orchestrating cognition, physiology and behavior in accordance with the specific information encoded in these moral representations.    On this basis, indignation and guilt appear as prototypical moral emotions. Indignation (“moral anger”) is activated when one receives fewer benefits than one deserves, and recruits bargaining mechanisms to enforce the violated moral contract. Guilt, symmetrically, is sensitive to one’s failure to honor one’s obligations toward others, and motivates compensation to provide them the missing benefits they deserve. By contrast, often-proposed “moral” emotions – shame, empathy, disgust – seem not to function to compute distinctively moral representations of cooperative obligations, but serve other, non-moral functions – social status management, interdependence, and pathogen avoidance (Figure 2). 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Young children show negative emotions after failing to help others

Gerdemann, S. C., Tippmann, J., et al (2022). 
PloS one, 17(4), e0266539.


Self-conscious emotions, such as guilt and shame, motivate the adherence to social norms, including to norms for prosociality. The relevance of an observing audience to the expression of negative self-conscious emotions remains poorly understood. Here, in two studies, we investigated the influence of being observed on 4-to 5-year-old children's (N = 161) emotional response after failing to help someone in need and after failing to complete their own goal. As an index of children's emotional response, we recorded the change in children's upper body posture using a motion depth sensor imaging camera. Failing to help others lowered children's upper body posture regardless of whether children were observed by an audience or not. Children's emotional response was similar when they failed to help and when they failed to complete their own goal. In Study 2, 5-year-olds showed a greater decrease in upper body posture than 4-year-olds. Our findings suggest that being observed is not a necessary condition for young children to express a negative self-conscious emotion after failing to help or after failing to complete their own goal. We conclude that 5-year-olds, more so that 4-year-olds, show negative emotions when they fail to adhere to social norms for prosociality.

General discussion

The current studies represent the first investigation of children’s emotional response to failing to help others using a method that automatically and objectively record changes in children’s body posture. Our studies show that young children’s emotional response is similarly negative when they fail to help or fail to achieve their own goal in both an observed and unobserved set-ting. Specifically, in both studies, children expressed a greater reduction in upper body posture after they failed to help (Trial 1) than during the resolution of the situation moments later (Trial 2). This result was corroborated by the emotion valence coding of Study 1. While observation or goal context did not influence this emotional response, we did find evidence in Study2 that 5-year-olds expressed a greater reduction in upper body posture after failing to help than 4-year-olds. Moreover, in Study 2, children expressed a predominantly shame-like negative emotion after failing to help, suggesting that self-evaluative processes were involved in children’s emotional response.

The influence of observation

Children expressed similarly negative emotions regardless of whether they were observed or unobserved during a failure to help, suggesting that the presence of an audience is not required for young children to express a negative self-conscious emotion. It is worth noting that children were made aware of the observer’s presence twice during the studies and were told that the observer would watch them today, which is comparable to previous studies of the influence of observation on children’s prosocial behavior. Our findings thus raise questions about the role of others’ evaluation or judgment of oneself in young children’s expression of self-conscious emotions. Some scholars have argued that young children’s expression of shame following achievement-related failures is the result of observing adults knowing (or having the impression) that children have performed poorly until children are school-aged.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The psychology of hate: Moral concerns differentiate hate from dislike

Pretus, C., Ray, J. L., et al. (2018, June 25). 


We investigated whether any differences in the psychological conceptualization of hate and dislike were simply a matter of degree of negativity (i.e., hate falls on the end of the continuum of dislike) or also morality (i.e., hate is imbued with distinct moral components that distinguish it from dislike). In three lab studies in Canada and the US, participants reported disliked and hated attitude objects and rated each on dimensions including valence, attitude strength, morality, and emotional content. Quantitative and qualitative measures revealed that hated attitude objects were more negative than disliked attitude objects and associated with moral beliefs and emotions, even after adjusting for differences in negativity. In study four, we analyzed the rhetoric on real hate sites and complaint forums and found that the language used on prominent hate websites contained more words related to morality, but not negativity, relative to complaint forums.


In our first study, we examined whether the conceptual differences between hate and dislike are simply a matter of degree of negativity or also a matter of morality. We found support for the intensity hypothesis—hated objects were viewed as more negative than disliked objects—suggesting that the difference between hate and dislike is indeed a matter of intensity. However, we also found support for the morality hypothesis—hated attitude objects were rated as more connected to participants’ core moral beliefs and were associated with higher levels of moral emotions (contempt, anger, and disgust) than disliked attitude objects—suggesting that the difference between hate and dislike may also be a matter of morality. We found convergent evidence for this latter hypothesis across quantitative and qualitative analyses, with self-reports, expressions of moral emotions, and spontaneous descriptions.

We note that differences in morality were attenuated when participants were asked about disliked attitudinal objects first. We discuss possible explanations of this order effect below. Importantly, the results supporting the morality hypothesis remained significant even when adjusting for negativity. Above and beyond the effect of negativity, both moral concerns and moral emotions explained the variance in ratings of hated versus disliked attitude objects. Likewise, participants spontaneously reported that hated objects were more closely tied to morality than disliked objects in their qualitative responses. These findings provide preliminary evidence that the conceptualization of hate may differ from dislike, and that morality may play a key role in explaining this difference.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Situational factors shape moral judgements in the trolley dilemma in Eastern, Southern and Western countries in a culturally diverse sample

Bago, B., Kovacs, M., Protzko, J. et al. 
Nat Hum Behav (2022).


The study of moral judgements often centres on moral dilemmas in which options consistent with deontological perspectives (that is, emphasizing rules, individual rights and duties) are in conflict with options consistent with utilitarian judgements (that is, following the greater good based on consequences). Greene et al. (2009) showed that psychological and situational factors (for example, the intent of the agent or the presence of physical contact between the agent and the victim) can play an important role in moral dilemma judgements (for example, the trolley problem). Our knowledge is limited concerning both the universality of these effects outside the United States and the impact of culture on the situational and psychological factors affecting moral judgements. Thus, we empirically tested the universality of the effects of intent and personal force on moral dilemma judgements by replicating the experiments of Greene et al. in 45 countries from all inhabited continents. We found that personal force and its interaction with intention exert influence on moral judgements in the US and Western cultural clusters, replicating and expanding the original findings. Moreover, the personal force effect was present in all cultural clusters, suggesting it is culturally universal. The evidence for the cultural universality of the interaction effect was inconclusive in the Eastern and Southern cultural clusters (depending on exclusion criteria). We found no strong association between collectivism/individualism and moral dilemma judgements.

From the Discussion

In this research, we replicated the design of Greene et al. using a culturally diverse sample across 45 countries to test the universality of their results. Overall, our results support the proposition that the effect of personal force on moral judgements is likely culturally universal. This finding makes it plausible that the personal force effect is influenced by basic cognitive or emotional processes that are universal for humans and independent of culture. Our findings regarding the interaction between personal force and intention were more mixed. We found strong evidence for the interaction of personal force and intention among participants coming from Western countries regardless of familiarity and dilemma context (trolley or speedboat), fully replicating the results of Greene et al.. However, the evidence was inconclusive among participants from Eastern countries in all cases. Additionally, this interaction result was mixed for participants from countries in the Southern cluster. We only found strong enough evidence when people familiar with these dilemmas were included in the sample and only for the trolley (not speedboat) dilemma.

Our general observation is that the size of the interaction was smaller on the speedboat dilemmas in every cultural cluster. It is yet unclear whether this effect is caused by some deep-seated (and unknown) differences between the two dilemmas (for example, participants experiencing smaller emotional engagement in the speedboat dilemmas that changes response patterns) or by some unintended experimental confound (for example, an effect of the order of presentation of the dilemmas).

Friday, March 18, 2022

Parents think—incorrectly—that teaching their children that the world is a bad place is likely best for them

J. D. W. Clifton & Peter Meindl (2021)
The Journal of Positive Psychology
DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.2016907

Primal world beliefs (‘primals’) are beliefs about the world’s basic character, such as the world is dangerous. This article investigates probabilistic assumptions about the value of negative primals (e.g., seeing the world as dangerous keeps me safe). We first show such assumptions are common. For example, among 185 parents, 53% preferred dangerous world beliefs for their children. We then searched for evidence consistent with these intuitions in 3 national samples and 3 local samples of undergraduates, immigrants (African and Korean), and professionals (car salespeople, lawyers, and cops;), examining correlations between primals and eight life outcomes within 48 occupations (total N=4,535) . As predicted, regardless of occupation, more negative primals were almost never associated with better outcomes. Instead, they predicted less success, less job and life satisfaction, worse health, dramatically less flourishing, more negative emotion, more depression, and increased suicide attempts. We discuss why assumptions about the value of negative primals are nevertheless widespread and implications for future research.

From the General Discussion

When might very positive primals be damaging illusions (i.e., associated with negative outcomes)? Study 2 was a big-net search for these contexts. We examined eight outcomes, six samples, 4,535 unique subjects, and 48 occupations (n ≥ 30), including lawyers, doctors, police officers, professors, and so forth. This unearthed 1,860 significant correlations between primals and outcomes, and the overall pattern was clear. In 99.7% of these relationships, more negative primals were associated with worse outcomes, roughly categorized as slightly less job success, moderately less job satisfaction, much less life satisfaction, moderately worse health, much increased frequency of negative emotion and other depression symptoms, dramatically decreased psychological flourishing, and moderately increased likelihood of having attempted suicide. We also found no empirical justification for the popular moderation approach. In 297 of 297 significant differences in outcomes, those who saw the world as somewhat positive always experienced worse outcomes than those who saw the world as very positive. In sum, a robust correlational relationship exists between more negative primals and more negative outcomes, even when comparing positive beliefs to positive beliefs, even when comparing within occupation. The seemingly widespread meta-belief that associates negative primals with positive outcomes is unsupported.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Social media really is making us more morally outraged

Charlotte Hu
Popular Science
updated 13 AUG 21

Here is an excerpt:

The most interesting finding for the team was that some of the more politically moderate people tended to be the ones who are influenced by social feedback the most. “What we know about social media now is that a lot of the political content we see is actually produced by a minority of users—the more extreme users,” Brady says. 

One question that’s come out of this study is: what are the conditions under which moderate users either become more socially influenced to conform to a more extreme tone, as opposed to just get turned off by it and leave the platform, or don’t engage any more? “I think both of these potential directions are important because they both imply that the average tone of conversation on the platform will get increasingly extreme.”

Social media can exploit base human psychology

Moral outrage is a natural tendency. “It’s very deeply ingrained in humans, it happens online, offline, everyone, but there is a sense that the design of social media can amplify in certain contexts this natural tendency we have,” Brady says. But moral outrage is not always bad. It can have important functions, and therefore, “it’s not a clear-cut answer that we want to reduce moral outrage.”

“There’s a lot of data now that suggest that negative content does tend to draw in more engagement on the average than positive content,” says Brady. “That being said, there are lots of contexts where positive content does draw engagement. So it’s definitely not a universal law.” 

It’s likely that multiple factors are fueling this trend. People could be attracted to posts that are more popular or go viral on social media, and past studies have shown that we want to know what the gossip is and what people are doing wrong. But the more people engage with these types of posts, the more platforms push them to us. 

Jonathan Nagler, a co-director of NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, who was not involved in the study, says it’s not shocking that moral outrage gets rewarded and amplified on social media. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Attitude Moralization Within Polarized Contexts: An Emotional Value-Protective Response to Dyadic Harm Cues

D’Amore, C., van Zomeren, M., & Koudenburg, N. 
(2021). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.


Polarization about societal issues involves attitudinal conflict, but we know little about how such conflict transforms into moral conflict. Integrating insights on polarization and psychological value protection, we propose a model that predicts when and how attitude moralization (i.e., when attitudes become grounded in core values) may be triggered and develops within polarized contexts. We tested this model in three experiments (total N = 823) in the context of the polarized Zwarte Piet (blackface) debate in the Netherlands. Specifically, we tested the hypotheses that (a) situational cues to dyadic harm in this context (i.e., an outgroup that is perceived as intentionally inflicting harm onto innocent victims) trigger individuals to moralize their relevant attitude, because of (b) emotional value-protective responses. Findings supported both hypotheses across different regional contexts, suggesting that attitude moralization can emerge within polarized contexts when people are exposed to actions by attitudinal opponents perceived as causing dyadic harm.

From the Discussion Section

Harm as dyadic

First, our findings suggest that a focus on dyadic harm may be key to understanding triggers for attitude moralization within polarized contexts. Although most researchers have assigned the general concept of harm a central role in theory on moral judgments (e.g., Kohlberg, 1969; Piaget, 1965; Rozin & Singh, 1999; Turiel, 2006), no previous research on moralization has specifically focused on the dyadic element of harm within polarized contexts. The few empirical studies that examined the role of harm as a general (utilitarian) predictor in the process of attitude moralization about a polarized issue (Brandt et al., 2015; Wisneski & Skitka, 2017) did not find clear support for its predictive power. Interestingly, our consistent finding that strong cues to dyadic harm served as a situational trigger for attitude moralization adds to this literature by suggesting that for understanding moralization triggers within polarized contexts, it is important to understand when people perceive harm as more dyadic (in this case, when a concrete outgroup is perceived as intentionally harming innocent [ingroup] victims). Indeed, we suggest that, in polarized contexts at least, harm could trigger attitude moralization when it is perceived to be dyadic—that is, intentionally harmful. This implies that researchers interested in predicting attitude moralization within polarized contexts should consider conceptualizing and measuring harm as dyadic.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Silenced by Fear: The Nature, Sources, and Consequences of Fear at Work

Kish-Gephart, J. J. et al. (2009)
Research in Organizational Behavior, 29, 163-193. 


In every organization, individual members have the potential to speak up about important issues, but a growing body of research suggests that they often remain silent instead, out of fear of negative personal and professional consequences. In this chapter, we draw on research from disciplines ranging from evolutionary psychology to neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology to unpack fear as a discrete emotion and to elucidate its effects on workplace silence. In doing so, we move beyond prior descriptions and categorizations of what employees fear to present a deeper understanding of the nature of fear experiences, where such fears originate, and the different types of employee silence they motivate. Our aim is to introduce new directions for future research on silence as well as to encourage further attention to the powerful and pervasive role of fear across numerous areas of theory and research on organizational behavior.


Fear, a powerful and pervasive emotion, influences human perception, cognition, and behavior in ways and to an extent that we find underappreciated in much of the organizational literature. This chapter draws from a broad range of literatures, including evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology, to provide a fuller understanding of how fear influences silence in organizations. Our intention is to provide a foundation to inform future theorizing and research on fear’s effects in the workplace, and to elucidate why people at work fear challenging authority and thus how fear inhibits speaking up with even routine problems or suggestions for improvement.

Our review of the literature on fear generated insights with the potential to extend theory on silence in several ways.  First, we proposed that silence should be differentiated based on the intensity of fear experienced and the time available for choosing a response. Both non-deliberative, low-road silence and conscious but schema-driven silence differ from descriptions in extant literature of defensive silence as intentional, reasoned and involving an expectancy-like mental calculus. Thus, our proposed typology (in Fig. 2) suggests the need for content-specific future theory and research. For example, the description of silence as the result of extended, conscious deliberation may fit choices about whistleblowing and major issue selling well, while not explaining how individuals decide to speak up or remain silent in more routine high fear intensity or high immediacy situations. We also theorized that as a natural outcome of humans’ innate tendency to avoid the unpleasant characteristics of fear, employees may develop a type of habituated silence behavior that is largely unrecognized by them.

We expanded understanding of the antecedents of workplace silence by explaining in detail how prior (individual and societal) experiences affect the perceptions, appraisals, and outcomes of fear-based silence. Noting that the fear of challenging authority has roots in the biological mechanisms developed to aid survival in early humans, we argued that this prepared fear is continually developed and reinforced through a lifetime of experiences across most social institutions (e.g., family, school, religion) that implicitly and explicitly convey messages about authority relationships.Over time, these direct and indirect learning experiences, coupled with the characteristics of an evolutionary-based fear module, become the memories and beliefs against which current stimuli in moments of possible voice are compared.

Finally, we proposed two factors to help explain why and how certain individuals speak up to authority despite experiencing some fear of doing so. Though the deck is clearly stacked in favor of fear and silence, anger as a biologically-based emotion and voice efficacy as a learned belief in one’s ability to successfully speak up in difficult voice situations may help employees prevail over fear – in part, through their influence on the control appraisals that are central to emotional experience.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making

Decety, J. (2021).
Current Directions in Psychological Science. 


Although empathy drives prosocial behaviors, it is not always a reliable source of information in moral decision making. In this essay, I integrate evolutionary theory, behavioral economics, psychology, and social neuroscience to demonstrate why and how empathy is unconsciously and rapidly modulated by various social signals and situational factors. This theoretical framework explains why decision making that relies solely on empathy is not ideal and can, at times, erode ethical values. This perspective has social and societal implications and can be used to reduce cognitive biases and guide moral decisions.

From the Conclusion

Empathy can encourage overvaluing some people and ignoring others, and privileging one over many. Reasoning is therefore essential to filter and evaluate emotional responses that guide moral decisions. Understanding the ultimate causes and proximate mechanisms of empathy allows characterization of the kinds of signals that are prioritized and identification of situational factors that exacerbate empathic failure. Together, this knowledge is useful at a theoretical level, and additionally provides practical information about how to reframe situations to activate alternative evolved systems in ways that promote normative moral conduct compatible with current societal aspirations. This conceptual framework advances current understanding of the role of empathy in moral decision making and may inform efforts to correct personal biases. Becoming aware of one’s biases is not the most effective way to manage and mitigate them, but empathy is not something that can be ignored. It has an adaptive biological function, after all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why Is It So Hard to Be Rational?

Joshua Rothman
The New Yorker
Originally published 16 Aug 21

Here is an excerpt:

Knowing about what you know is Rationality 101. The advanced coursework has to do with changes in your knowledge. Most of us stay informed straightforwardly—by taking in new information. Rationalists do the same, but self-consciously, with an eye to deliberately redrawing their mental maps. The challenge is that news about distant territories drifts in from many sources; fresh facts and opinions aren’t uniformly significant. In recent decades, rationalists confronting this problem have rallied behind the work of Thomas Bayes, an eighteenth-century mathematician and minister. So-called Bayesian reasoning—a particular thinking technique, with its own distinctive jargon—has become de rigueur.

There are many ways to explain Bayesian reasoning—doctors learn it one way and statisticians another—but the basic idea is simple. When new information comes in, you don’t want it to replace old information wholesale. Instead, you want it to modify what you already know to an appropriate degree. The degree of modification depends both on your confidence in your preexisting knowledge and on the value of the new data. Bayesian reasoners begin with what they call the “prior” probability of something being true, and then find out if they need to adjust it.

Consider the example of a patient who has tested positive for breast cancer—a textbook case used by Pinker and many other rationalists. The stipulated facts are simple. The prevalence of breast cancer in the population of women—the “base rate”—is one per cent. When breast cancer is present, the test detects it ninety per cent of the time. The test also has a false-positive rate of nine per cent: that is, nine per cent of the time it delivers a positive result when it shouldn’t. Now, suppose that a woman tests positive. What are the chances that she has cancer?

When actual doctors answer this question, Pinker reports, many say that the woman has a ninety-per-cent chance of having it. In fact, she has about a nine-per-cent chance. The doctors have the answer wrong because they are putting too much weight on the new information (the test results) and not enough on what they knew before the results came in—the fact that breast cancer is a fairly infrequent occurrence. To see this intuitively, it helps to shuffle the order of your facts, so that the new information doesn’t have pride of place. Start by imagining that we’ve tested a group of a thousand women: ten will have breast cancer, and nine will receive positive test results. Of the nine hundred and ninety women who are cancer-free, eighty-nine will receive false positives. Now you can allow yourself to focus on the one woman who has tested positive. To calculate her chances of getting a true positive, we divide the number of positive tests that actually indicate cancer (nine) by the total number of positive tests (ninety-eight). That gives us about nine per cent.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Partisan Schadenfreude and the Demand for Candidate Cruelty

Webster, S.W., Glynn, A.N., & Motta, M. P.
Unpublished Manuscript
July 2021


We establish the prevalence of partisan schadenfreude—that is, taking “joy in the suffering” of partisan others. Analyzing attitudes on health care, taxation, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic, we find that a sizable portion of the American mass public engages in partisan schadenfreude and that these attitudes are most commonly expressed by the most ideologically extreme Americans. Additionally, we provide evidence of the demand for candidate cruelty, finding a sizable portion of the American public to be more likely than not to vote for candidates who promise to pass policies that “disproportionately harm” supporters of the opposing political party. Finally, we demonstrate that partisan schadenfreude is highly predictive of this likelihood to vote for cruel candidates and much more predictive of this likelihood than strong partisanship or ideological extremity. In sum, our results suggest that partisan schadenfreude is widespread and has disturbing implications for American political behavior.


American politics is increasingly divisive. While such a claim is relatively undisputed, few have attempted to study how those divisions psychologically motivate extreme and punitive forms of political participation. In this study we have taken an important first step in this regard. Utilizing a series of novel datasets measuring the political attitudes of thousands of Americans, we have shown that a significant portion of the mass public is prone to engaging in what we have called partisan schadenfreude, or taking “joy in the suffering” of partisan others.

We have also demonstrated that Americans express a preference for candidate cruelty. Specifically, our results suggest that a significant portion—over one-third—of the mass public is willing to vote for a candidate of unknown ideological leanings who promises to pass policies that “disproportionately harm” supporters of the opposing political party. Together, these findings help resolve uncertainty about whether the public passively accepts politicians who espouse punitive policies and rhetoric, or actively demands them. We find that Americans actively demand candidate cruelty, and that this demand is highest among those who exhibit the greatest amount of partisan schadenfreude.