Moral cognition: Individual differences, intuition and reasoning in moral judgment

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Psychological processes involved in moral cognition were examined in three studies, taking as their starting point the assumption that the cognitive-developmental perspective commonly taken is too narrow and that individual differences and implicit processes need to be taken into consideration.

Study I focused on the role of defense mechanisms in moral thinking. A self-report questionnaire was constructed for the purpose of measuring three aspects of morality: moralism, conscience and need for reparation. As hypothesized, a significant positive relationship was found between moralism and the defense mechanism of isolation, particularly isolation of affect, supporting the idea that implicit processes are important for moral functioning.

In Study II the effects on moral reasoning of gender, time pressure and seriousness of the issue at hand were investigated in two experiments. In the first experiment, women were found, as predicted from C. Gilligan's (1982) moral judgment model, to be more care-oriented in their reasoning than men. Both time pressure and consideration of everyday as opposed to serious moral dilemmas led to an increase in a justice orientation as compared with a care orientation in moral judgments. In the second experiment, moral reasoning was coded in terms of its being either duty-oriented (duty, obligations, rights) or consequence-oriented (effects on others). Men were found to be more duty-oriented than women, and time pressure to lead to a greater incidence of duty orientation.

Study III, involving two experiments, concerned the question of whether moral judgment is primarily based on intuition or on reasoning. In Experiment 1 participants were presented with a classic moral reasoning task (Kohlberg's "Heinz dilemma") and with four other tasks designed to put intuition and reason in conflict with one another. On the four latter tasks, but not on the Heinz task, judgments were found to be based more on gut feelings than on reasoning, participants frequently laughing and stating directly that they were unable to give reasons in support of their judgments. This phenomenon, the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a judgment without supporting reasons, was dubbed "moral dumbfounding." In Experiment 2, reasoning processes were put under pressure by means of cognitive load. High load was found to lead to arguments of lower quality, but the predicted effects of increased dumbfounding and shorter time before giving up the discussion could not be shown. The existence of moral dumbfounding calls into question models in which moral judgment is regarded as being produced solely by moral reasoning. It is suggested that both implicit processes and reasoning should be included in models of moral cognition and that taking account of the interaction between the two is important for an adequate understanding of moral judgment.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Psychology
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date2000 May 25
Publication statusPublished - 2000

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2000-05-25
Time: 10:00
Place: Samarkand AF
External reviewer(s)
Name: Biel, Anders
Title: Docent
Affiliation: Department of Psychology, Göteborg University

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Psychology

Free keywords

  • Psychology


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