Moral Psychology

Human beings live complex social lives, composed of various types of relationships across nested social hierarchies, all structured by rights, rules, and obligations. However, selfish goals persist, and keeping individuals’ goals in line with community interests has become the primary challenge of modern morality. To meet this challenge human societies have developed two major social-cultural tools: a vast network of rules, norms, and values and complex social practices of norm enforcement, such as blame, praise, apology, and reconciliation. These and related topics are the focus of our current work in moral psychology.


In this project we examine how social and moral norms are represented in the mind. We have proposed a theoretical framework (Malle, Scheutz, & Austerweil, 2016) and are engaged in several empirical studies (e.g., Kenett et al., 2016) that capture how norms are organized, activated, and learned. With a clearer sense of the properties of human norm representation we can then build norm networks in artificial agents, particularly robots that interact with humans in social settings.


Blame and other moral judgments

Recently we developed a theory of blame (Malle, Guglielmo, & Monroe, 2014) that accounts well for past findings and has been supported in recent direct tests (Guglielmo & Malle, under revision, Monroe & Malle, 2017). In related work we are currently exploring how blame judgments differ from other moral judgments (e.g., badness, wrongness, permissibility); how social demands to justify acts of public blaming influence the information processing that leads to blame (Voiklis & Malle, in press); how such social demands are codified in "norms of blaming" (Kim & Malle); how everyday judgments of blame differ from inclinations to punish illegal actions; and how one can best explain the recent increases in social blaming of microaggressions.


Affect and moral judgment

In two lines of research we have recently explored what role affect and emotions play in moral judgment. In one series of studies that assess the speed at which various processes occur, we have found that feelings and emotions such as angry and upset emerge more slowly than judgments of badness and also generally more slowly than intentionality and blame. In another series of studies we induced emotions in participants and tested the effects they had on downstream moral judgments. In 6 studies we found no effect of incidental anger on judgments of blame or badness.

The nature of guilt

We have started to explore how guilt differs from blame and from emotions such as sadness or anger. In one set of studies we have found that guilt is greater for unintentional than for intentional violations (whereas the opposite is true for blame); in another set of studies we have found that guilt appears to decline less over time than anger or sadness.

Moral vocabulary

We have identified a few hundred words that make up the core vocabulary people use in conceptualizing and describing moral phenomena. These words are grouped into thee broad categories: a vocabulary of norms and values, a vocabulary for describing norm violations and violators, and a vocabulary to capture resposnes tonorm violations. Further differentiation within each category leads to a powerful dictionary of 23 sub-topics that help differentiate, for example, spoken from written moral material and conservative from liberal writers. We have further shown that these categories.

Moral criticism in the lexicon

Here we have explored how English verbs of moral criticism (e.g., blame, scold, condemn) reveal the underlying cognitive organization of interpersonal moral regulation. We have found that 32 verbs of moral criticism are relilably judged along a dozen features are organized in three dimensions. The first is the intensity of the act of criticism, the second is whether the criticism is directed at the perpertrator (or to other people), and the third is the power and influence that the moral criticism indicates.

Voiklis, J. and Malle, B. F. (In Press). Moral Cognition and its Basis in Social Cognition and Social Regulation. In K. J. Gray and J. Graham (Eds.), Atlas of Moral Psychology. New York: Guilford Publications, Inc.

Malle, B. F., Scheutz, M., & Austerweil, J. L. (in press). Networks of social and moral norms in human and robot agents. In Ferreira, M. I. A., Sequeira, J. S., Tokhi, M. O., Kadar, E., & Virk, G. S. (eds.), A world with robots. Springer Verlag.

Guglielmo, S., Malle, B. F. (forthcoming). Information-acquisition processes in moral judgments of blame. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Monroe, A. E., & Malle, B. F. (2017). Two paths to blame: Intentionality directs moral information processing along two distinct tracks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 123-133.

Malle, B. F., Guglielmo, S., & Monroe, A. E. (2014). A theory of blame. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 147–186. http