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Moral Intuitions and Emotions: Evidence

What evidence might support Sinnott-Armstrong et al (2010)’s view that unreflective ethical judgements are the product of an affect heuristic?

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Question: What do adult humans compute that enables their moral intuitions to track moral attributes (such as wrongness)?

Hypothesis: They rely on the Affect Heuristic.

How can we tell whether the Hypothesis is correct? By testing its predictions ...

Prediction generated by the Hypothesis: if you make people feel bad without them realising it, they will be more inclined to judge that something is morally wrong.

Evidence that the Prediction is correct:

‘For high-PBC [Private Body Consciousness] (but not low-PBC) people, our disgust manipulations increased the severity of moral condemnation relative to the neutral conditions’ (Schnall, Haidt, Clore, & Jordan, 2008, p. 1105)

(Schnall et al., 2008, p. 1106) summarise their discoveries in this way:

‘rather than being obligatory, affective influences on judgment can often be eliminated by making salient an irrelevant but plausible cause for the feelings. We unwittingly evoked this process in an earlier and failed attempt to carry out these experiments. As a disgust manipulation, we asked participants to immerse one hand in a gooey substance [...]. Immediately afterward, participants made morality ratings. This very concrete disgust experience, [...] did not influence moral judgments [...], presumably because the unusual nature of the experience and its obvious relation to disgust remained highly salient as participants made their moral judgments. In retrospect, it seems likely that any disgust elicited by the moral dilemmas was likely to be attributed to the feeling of the gooey substance rather than the other way around.’

We should be cautious in putting too much weight on a single study, of course. Ideally we will have a range of studies, using different paradigms, from different labs. We should also consider evidence which does, or appears to, conflict with the Hypothesis. (It’s common for a hypothesis to generate one prediction which is confirmed, leading us to provisionally accept it, only to discover, perhaps much later, another prediction which is falsified.)

Provisionally, we may draw four conclusions:

  1. ‘the effect of disgust applies regardless of whether the action to be judged is itself disgusting.
  2. disgust influenced moral, but not additional nonmoral, judgments.
  3. because the effect occurred most strongly for people who were sensitive to their own bodily cues, the results appear to concern feelings of disgust rather than merely the primed concept of disgust.
  4. induced sadness did not have similar effects’ (Schnall et al., 2008, pp. 1105--6).

Appendix: Some details

You probably don’t need to read this, but you may be curious. And I’m usually going to expect you to get the details from the paper yourself, but as it’s early in the course ...

Details from Experiment 1

‘The sadness clip (from The Champ) portrayed the death of a boy’s mentor, the disgust clip (from Trainspotting) portrayed a man using an unsanitary toilet and the neutral clip (from a National Geographic special) portrayed fish at the Great Barrier Reef’ (Lerner, Small, & Loewenstein, 2004).

‘Three of these vignettes involved a moral violation with disgust—Dog (a man who ate his dead dog), Plane Crash (starving survivors of a plane crash consider cannibalism), and Kitten (a man deriving sexual pleasure from playing with a kitten)—and three of the vignettes involved a moral violation with no disgust—Wallet (finding a wallet and not returning it to its owner), Resume (a person falsifying his resume), and Trolley (preventing the death of five men by killing one man). The instructions told participants to go with their initial intuitions when responding’ (Schnall et al., 2008, p. 1100)

Vignettes from Schnall et al (2008) Experiment 4

Dog Frank’s dog was killed by a car in front of his house. Frank had heard that in China people occasionally eat dog meat, and he was curious what it tasted like. So he cut up the body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. How wrong is it for Frank to eat his dead dog for dinner?

Plane Crash Your plane has crashed in the Himalayas. The only survivors are yourself, another man, and a young boy. The three of you travel for days, battling extreme cold and wind. Your only chance at survival is to find your way to a small village on the other side of the mountain, several days away. The boy has a broken leg and cannot move very quickly. His chances of surviving the journey are essentially zero. Without food, you and the other man will probably die as well. The other man suggests that you sacrifice the boy and eat his remains over the next few days. How wrong is it to kill this boy so that you and the other man may survive your journey to safety?

Wallet You are walking down the street when you come across a wallet lying on the ground. You open the wallet and find that it contains several hundred dollars in cash as well the owner’s driver’s license. From the credit cards and other items in the wallet it’s very clear that the wallet’s owner is wealthy. You, on the other hand, have been hit by hard times recently and could really use some extra money. You consider sending the wallet back to the owner without the cash, keeping the cash for yourself. How wrong is it for you to keep the money you found in the wallet in order to have more money for yourself?

Resume You have a friend who has been trying to find a job lately without much success. He figured that he would be more likely to get hired if he had a more impressive resume. He decided to put some false information on his resume in order to make it more impressive. By doing this he ultimately managed to get hired, beating out several candidates who were actually more qualified than he. How wrong was it for your friend to put false information on his resume in order to help him find employment?

Kitten Matthew is playing with his new kitten late one night. He is wearing only his boxer shorts, and the kitten sometimes walks over his genitals. Eventually, this arouses him, and he begins to rub his bare genitals along the kitten’s body. The kitten purrs, and seems to enjoy the contact. How wrong is it for Matthew to be rubbing himself against the kitten?

Trolley You are at the wheel of a runaway trolley quickly approaching a fork in the tracks. On the tracks extending to the left is a group of five railway workmen. On the tracks extending to the right is a single railway workman. If you do nothing the trolley will proceed to the left, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to avoid the deaths of these workmen is to hit a switch on your dashboard that will cause the trolley to proceed to the right, causing the death of the single workman. How wrong is it for you to hit the switch in order to avoid the deaths of the five workmen?

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Affect Heuristic : In the context of moral psychology, the Affect Heuristic is this principle: ‘if thinking about an act [...] makes you feel bad [...], then judge that it is morally wrong’ (Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman, 2010). These authors hypothesise that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions.
A different (but related) Affect Heurstic has also be postulated to explain how people make judgements about risky things are: The more dread you feel when imagining an event, the more risky you should judge it is (see Pachur, Hertwig, & Steinmann, 2012, which is discussed in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study).
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, a person’s intuitions are the claims they take to be true independently of whether those claims are justified inferentially. And a person’s moral intuitions are simply those of their intuitions that concern ethical matters.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’
tracking an attribute : For a process to track an attribute is for the presence or absence of the attribute to make a difference to how the process unfolds, where this is not an accident. (And for a system or device to track an attribute is for some process in that system or device to track it.)
Tracking an attribute is contrasted with computing it. Unlike tracking, computing typically requires that the attribute be represented. (The distinction between tracking and computing is a topic of Moral Intuitions and an Affect Heuristic.)


Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M., & Anderson, A. K. (2009). In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust. Science, 323(5918), 1222–1226.
Lerner, J. S., Small, D. A., & Loewenstein, G. (2004). Heart Strings and Purse Strings: Carryover Effects of Emotions on Economic Decisions. Psychological Science, 15(5), 337–341.
Pachur, T., Hertwig, R., & Steinmann, F. (2012). How Do People Judge Risks: Availability Heuristic, Affect Heuristic, or Both? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18(3), 314–330.
Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L., & Jordan, A. H. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1096–1109.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.