What is the relationship between emotions and morality?

Daryl Cameron

Think about the last time someone did something immoral—killed, cheated, stole, had sex with someone or something they shouldn’t have—your immediate response was likely to be emotional: you probably felt negative and pretty “worked up” about it.  Although it was long assumed that our ability to make moral judgments had very little to do with our emotions, growing evidence now suggests the opposite is true.  Over two decades of research suggests that emotional states and moral judgments are intertwined.  In general, moral violations elicit negative emotions that in turn shape people’s reactions about the severity or importance of a moral infraction.  People who are more emotionally reactive tend to find moral violations to be more wrong and deserving of punishment, and clinical populations with diminished emotions (e.g., psychopaths) make moral judgments differently than healthy individuals.  Causing people to feel emotions ranging from disgust and anger to compassion and amusement can change their moral judgments (e.g., whether they think something is wrong) and moral behavior (e.g., whether they punish someone else).  Broadly, these findings support the writings of Scottish philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith: who you blame depends (in part) on how you feel.

Some have suggested that it might matter which emotion you’re currently feeling, insofar as some emotions might be more related to certain types of moral violations than others.  When someone steals a marble rye from an elderly lady, you might feel anger.  When someone has sex with a marble rye, you might feel disgust. In fact, many psychological theories suggest that there are unique pairings between specific emotions and specific types of morality.  These theories carve morality into many different types, such as harm, which involves causing suffering (e.g., killing someone), and purity, which involves bodily/spiritual defilement (e.g., “unnatural” sex).  Harm and purity are considered distinct, like taste buds for sweet and sour.  The question is: are certain “moral taste buds” uniquely responsive to certain emotions, just as certain taste buds are uniquely responsive to certain “basic tastes” such as sweet and sour?

3999966771_46dd120c46_zMany have claimed that harm violations are uniquely connected to the emotion of anger, and that purity violations are uniquely connected to the emotion of disgust.  Anger shouldn’t correlate with or influence moral judgments about purity violations, and disgust shouldn’t correlate with or influence moral judgments about harm violations.  In a recently published review with Kristen Lindquist and Kurt Gray, we examined the evidence for these specificity claims.  Examining the literature, we did not find support for these claims: instead, disgust and anger each relate to judgments about both harm and purity violations.

So what drives the relationship between emotions and moral judgment?  It may be that specific emotions don’t matter as much as feeling generally bad or “worked up.”  For instance, in a recent set of studies, people were made to feel one of a variety of emotions—including disgust, fear, sadness, and excitement—and then they judged harm and purity violations.  Compared to a neutral control condition, all of the emotion inductions made people judge moral violations more harshly, regardless of the induced emotion or the type of morality being judged.  Instead, what mattered was a more basic dimension that underlies specific emotions, called arousal: generally, how activated and worked up are you?  This finding has interesting implications for everyday moral judgment.  If being aroused and worked up increases moral condemnation, then you may want to reconsider making any important moral decisions after just waking up (when you feel lowly activated), going jogging (when you feel highly activated), or having that third cup of coffee (when you feel really highly activated).

This finding is consistent with a broader perspective on the mind called constructionism: mental states like emotions and moral judgments are built from more basic parts, just like a cake emerges from a recipe that combines flour, sugar, and eggs. For emotions and moral judgments, these ingredients include affect (how good/bad and aroused you feel) and your knowledge and memories.  Constructionism has been applied to explain emotions (for review, see here) and moral judgments (for review, see here).  Disgust and anger feel different, as do purity and harm, which is why it may seem natural for them to pair up with one another.  But research suggests that they don’t, and that basic ingredients like arousal may be equally, if not more, important in understanding emotions, morality, and the relationship between the two.  Returning to the taste bud analogy, distinct “moral taste buds” are not uniquely responsive to certain emotions.  Morality may be a matter of taste, but understanding the relationship between emotions and morality may benefit from constructionism as a new approach.


photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/reisgekki/

Humans aren’t the only lonely species. Monkeys may be lonely too.

Eliza Bliss-Moreau

More than two decades of research demonstrates that people who have more social connections do better—in terms of their general health, ability to recover from illness, and longevity (for a classic, oft cited study, see here; for a review, here; for popular press coverage and a lovely long read on human loneliness, here). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not just the number of people you’re connected to that matters for your well-being. Whether people’s social relationships meet their social needs also has critical importance for health outcomes  regardless of how many social connections they have (for reviews of this literature see here, here, and here). That is, it’s possible to be well-connected socially and still feel totally alone in the world. It is also possible to have very few social relationships but not feel lonely at all.

Exciting new evidence illustrates that we humans might not be the only ones to experience loneliness—rhesus macaque monkeys may as well. As part of an interdisciplinary team, Dr. John Capitanio examined the social behavior of adult male macaques at the California National Primate Research Center and identified three different patterns. Some monkeys engaged in a lot of social interactions with other males, adult females, and younger monkeys. Other monkeys did not engage in a lot of social interactions at all. What’s critical some of these “lowly social” monkeys seemed fairly content with their lot in life—they went about their daily business without trying to build new relationships.

Housing&Enrichment©K.West-CNPRC,039The other lowly social monkeys did seem to care about their lot in life, however. They often physically approached adult females and younger animals, presumably in an effort to initiate an interaction. Similarly, the monkeys would walk by those animals to see what they were doing, even when trying not to engage with them. The fact that these behaviors were observed with adult females and younger monkeys suggests that these “lonely” adult male monkeys may have been looking for easy social relationships (because of how macaque societies are structured, relationships between adult males can be challenging). This heightened social interest persisted when evaluated 1.5 years later. In other words, there were monkeys who appeared to chronically desire social relationships but did not manage to make them happen—a potential monkey homologue of human loneliness. What’s more, as Capitanio points out, these lonely monkeys may be better models for human loneliness than previous animal models because the phenomenon emerged spontaneously in the context of large naturalistic social groups, rather than as a result of experimentally separating animals.

In and of itself, the finding that nonhuman animals might have the capacity to be lonely is an interesting one. It suggests that experiencing a mismatch between one’s social realities and one’s social desires is evolutionarily old, raising questions about what function loneliness might have served for our ancestors.

But perhaps more importantly, animal models of human psychological phenomena, such as a monkey model of loneliness, are critical to understanding the biological processes that contribute to them. Nonhuman primate (e.g., monkey) models are particularly important for understanding human function and dysfunction because we share so many biological and social features. Monkey models allow for precise experimental control (e.g., the ability to manipulate social environment, diet, sleep-cycles, etc.), intensive long-term longitudinal studies (i.e., the ability to track and evaluate many individual animals over the course of their entire lives), and the development of causal biological models. Understanding biological mechanisms is critical for developing effective early interventions and treatments for deleterious psychological experiences. Studying lonely monkeys may therefore unearth the biological and social processes that can be harnessed to help lonely humans in the future.

Photo: Adult male rhesus monkey at the CNPRC eating a zucchini. Photo Credit: Kathy West, CNPRC.

How to keep your New Year’s resolutions in 2015

Kristen Lindquist

Every year, as we finish a holiday season filled with festive libations, millions of people vow they’re going to get on the straight and narrow. We vow to get thinner, get healthier, spend less, and organize our lives in the coming year. Yet some estimates suggest that just 8% of us ultimately succeed in enacting these resolutions. The ardent pledges we make on December 31st very quickly recede into the background when the cookies, cigarettes, purchases, and distractions insidiously work their way back into our daily lives on January 1st and thereafter.

You might not be surprised that humans are so supremely terrible at controlling our own behavior–we’ve all experienced those moments when we said we weren’t going to engage in some behavior and then we do it again anyway. The problem is, we engage in those behaviors because they’re linked to rewards (sugar, nicotine, relaxation, fat, shiny new shoes, what have you), and our brains are programmed to want rewards in the here and now. This means that we not only need to pledge to get to the gym more, avoid drinking those extra beers, or incorporate more vegetables into our lives—we also need to enact those goals in daily life when the urge to sit on the couch, reach for a cold one, and order the fries rear their ugly heads. Not surprisingly, research shows that merely having an intention to do better doesn’t often translate into better behavior in the future (in one study, 47% of people who intended to engage in some goal never did).


Fortunately, there is hope for all of us who want to change this year. Self-control, or the ability to control your behavior, can be measured as a trait (much like other personality traits such as introversion, extraversion, agreeableness, etc.), and contrary to popular belief, people who enact their New Year’s Resolutions don’t just have Herculean self-control. Rather, people who score high in self-control actually report encountering problematic rewards less in daily life than do people who are low in self-control. This is likely because people high in self control set up their lives in a way that lets them avoid the strong lure of unwanted rewards (the cookies, beers, couches, and new shoes you’ve proclaimed you’ll avoid this year), well in advance of when those rewards are encountered. For instance, someone high in self-control who wants to drop a few pounds might do so by not keeping unhealthy foods in the house in the first place. People high in self-control seem to know that it’s relatively easy to avoid the cookie aisle when in the grocery store, but harder to avoid the cookies when they call from your pantry late at night. People high in self-control rarely find themselves eating a whole box of cookies at night because they’ve ensured that there are no cookies available to be eaten in the first place.

Research has also uncovered other means of helping people enact their goals. My colleague, Paschal Sheeran, is a health psychologist who studies how people’s “implementation intentions” can help them enact their health-related goals (like, eh hem, those goals you made for yourself around 11:59pm on Dec 31st). Implementation intentions involve making a simple “if-then” plan for your future behavior. Rather than just stating a goal, you come up with plans for achieving it that include information on when, where, and how you’ll enact that plan. For instance, rather than forming a general goal such as, “I won’t eat unhealthy foods this year,” you’d form a series of implementation intentions such as, “if they serve pizza at the office lunch, I’ll have only one piece,” or “if I make chicken nuggets for the kids, I’ll make myself a salad,” or “if they serve dessert at the party, I’ll have fruit instead of chocolate cake.” Just like the trick used by individuals high in self-control, the magic ingredient lies in making very specific plans for your behavior well in advance of being faced with a rewarding object. For instance, when staring down that extra slice of pizza at the office lunch, you don’t give the angel and devil sitting on your shoulders the opportunity to duke it out—you just automatically engage in the behavior you planned on—and take only one slice. By contrast, the traditional method of self-control asks you to hem and haw in the moment, trying to figure out a way to steer clear of that delicious, greasy pizza. By that point, the lure of the reward takes over, often even in those with Herculean strength of will. As simple as they seem, research shows that implementation intentions are quite effective—on average, using implementation intentions would make you about 3 times more effective at avoiding that extra slice of pizza.

So rather than just telling yourself that you’re going to lose weight this year, work out more, or make better financial decisions, set up your life in a way that makes it easier for you to avoid undesired rewards and make a set of clear implementation intentions for your behaviors. 2015 might just be the year that you enact your goals!


photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bex_x_pi/