Brown Bag Talk by Dr. Nina Powell on 18 September

Speaker: Dr. Nina Powell

Title: Moral Virtue and Praise Versus Moral Vice and Condemnation

Date: 18th September 2013 (Wednesday), 12pm-1pm

Venue: AS4/02-08 (Psychology Department Meeting Room)


There are reasons why condemnation might outweigh praise, both as a topic of study and as a driving force in moral judgement. First, there is a well-documented “negativity bias” in human information processing (Jordan, 1965; Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001), which might support greater attention to moral vice than moral virtue (and which might have even prompted more research interest in condemnation than praise). Relatedly, a wealth of evidence suggests that people are averse to loss (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1986), to the extent that they are even more motivated to avoid a loss than acquire a gain (e.g., Tversky & Kahneman, 1992), which suggests that individuals should generally be more motivated to avoid condemnation than earn praise.

Apart from evidence demonstrating a “negativity bias” in human information processing (Jordan, 1965; Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001), along with evidence suggesting that people use dishonest behavior as a better indicator of personality than honest behavior (McGraw, 1985; Reeder & Coovert, 1986; Skowronski & Carlston, 1989), there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that full-blown positive moral emotion (i.e., including its behavioural correlates) may require a substantial knowledge/information base. Research has demonstrated that feelings of elevation in response to witnessing virtuous behaviour can lead to helping behaviour (Schnall, Roper, & Fessler, 2010). In our own research, however, we have found that helping behaviour does not result from witnessing the virtuous behaviour in isolation, but also requires having knowledge of either a positive outcome for the help recipient or praise of the helper (Powell, Zumbé, & Quinn, in preparation-b). This evidence suggests that the positive effects of witnessing morally virtuous behaviour are reliant on more knowledge than was previously thought, suggesting that people are in need of extensive proof and confirmation of virtue.

In an effort to directly compare virtue and vice, and their respective evidentiary standards, we predicted that people would show different attention to, and engagement with, information about moral vice compared to moral virtue. We directly compared vignettes depicting moral virtue and moral vice, as well as self-generated examples of virtue and vice. We found that participants reported a greater interest in judging virtue compared to vice, and believed that actors behaving virtuously were more likely to act with a goal in mind than actors behaving viciously. In a follow-up study, we found that when we included a morally neutral control scenario and asked participants to judge wrongness and make inferences about moral character relating to the moral foundations theory (Haidt & Joseph, 2004), participants had a hard time differentiating between neutrality and goodness, but could clearly identify and infer badness. This suggests that a) the asymmetry between moral virtue and moral vice may be found in preferences for information and inferences about intentionality rather than in explicit judgments of goodness and badness, b) that there is a positivity bias or a positive baseline for morality, and c) that perhaps moral acts need to be exemplary in order to be differentiated from acts of general goodness.

About the speaker:

Nina Powell received a bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) in psychology from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2008. Nina went on to complete her PhD at the University of Birmingham, UK in moral psychology from 2009-2013. Nina’s main research interests are the processing of mitigating information and judgment reversal, the development of moral reasoning, and how we process virtue compared to vice. After completing her PhD at the University of Birmingham, Nina stayed on as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow funded by the Leverhulme Trust, to investigate the evidentiary standards for judging virtue compared to vice, and the effect of condemnation and praise on well-being. Her research has shown that while moral judgments may often rely on intuitive and emotional processes, the consideration of information and moral reasoning are influential for both moral judgments and subsequent behaviour. Finally, her research has demonstrated that moral reasoning is late developing, and she argues that attempts to detect early, crude signs of moral understanding in infants and young children are misguided and demonstrative of a misunderstanding of what it is to be a moral agent. Currently, Nina is in a two-year fellowship at the National University of Singapore researching the cross-cultural and thinking style differences associated with judgment reversal and consideration of mitigation in both moral judgments and judgments of honesty.

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