Character  &  Context

Shared Perceptions: Morality is Embedded in Social Contexts

Wordmap of morality
The partisanship and rancor in Washington is aMoral psychology Word Cloud Concept troubling indicator of how different political liberals and conservatives have become. After all, the places we live, the media we watch, and the candidates we vote for have become increasingly polarized. Underlying many of these changes are basic differences concerning the kinds of moral communities we live in, the moral messages we hear, and the moral issues our politicians stand for. Considering these basic differences, do you find it plausible that liberals and conservatives might perceive their social and moral worlds in completely incompatible ways? Metaphorically speaking, do we occupy separate realities? The answer, we suggest, depends on where you look.
Psychologists have—reasonably enough—often looked for morality inside individuals; that is, there is a sense in which our moral beliefs are much like personality traits we carry around with us everywhere we go. In this view, a set of basic moral intuitions guide our behavior across situations in a relatively stable manner. The most popular framework for conceptualizing and measuring such trait-like moral intuitions, Moral Foundations Theory, posits that there are five distinct foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity (e.g., Graham, et al., 2011). A person’s score on a moral foundation, indicating his or her level of endorsement, is measured by averaging the ratings of several abstract statements and several contextualized statements together. A robust finding emerging from this research is that political liberals and conservatives emphasize very different sets of moral foundations (e.g., Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009). Thus, it seems that liberals and conservatives might occupy separate social spaces if you focus on the morality inside individuals.
However, a different place to look for morality is inside groups; namely, there is a sense in which our moral beliefs are more like norms that exert influence over us only while we remain in the group. Viewed through this lens, the features of the group—not our intuitions— guide our behavior within situations in a relatively stable manner. The basic theory here is that morality helps us live together in groups, so people perceive different moral norms playing primary roles in different social situations because the norms help people navigate those social situations. We examined this idea in two recently published studies (Carnes, Lickel, & Janoff-Bulman, 2015). Participants rated the exact same abstract statements used in past work with Moral Foundations Theory, but this time each statement was rated in a variety of different real life contexts. This means participants rated how much each moral foundation actually applied to various groups ranging from strangers waiting at a bus stop, to coworkers, to family, to citizens of the US.
The first thing we did is figure out whether the groups people were rating or the individuals making the ratings had a larger relative effect on the moral foundations. We found that the groups people were rating accounted for an average of 88.15% of the variance in the moral foundations (variance is a statistical term for how spread out the scores are around the mean). This suggests that how people rated the moral foundations was primarily driven by the social context, and only modestly by the person making the rating. We also found that every group had a unique profile of associated moral foundations, so every group was different from every other group. Collectively, this evidence suggests that we were indeed looking at morality embedded in groups, and not just in individuals. Interestingly, we found very modest differences between liberals and conservatives when we assessed these moral foundations in rich social contexts; the effect size of political differences was small while the effect size of group differences was larger.
We’re not saying that there is anything wrong with looking for morality in individuals, but looking for morality in groups is just as legitimate. What we find when we look at morality in groups is that political differences appear to be rather small. People generally apply ingroup/loyalty in their families, authority/respect with coworkers, fairness/reciprocity with strangers, and care/harm with friends because that is what these relationships call for. There are differences of course, but liberals and conservatives just might be more similar than we thought.
Carnes, N. C., Lickel, B., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (2015). Shared perceptions: Morality is embedded in social contexts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(3), 351-362.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029.
Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366.
Nate C. Carnes is a 4th year Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His research focuses on the intersection of morality and group dynamics in order to understand human sociality. Contact:
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