Universiteit Leiden

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The case for moral perception

14 september 2016
Sylvius Lectures
Pieter de la Court
Wassenaarseweg 52
2333 AK Leiden

Models of moral psychology have largely ignored the relationship between morality and perception, despite the fact that moral judgment and decision-making usually requires that people first perceive the presence of a morally-relevant stimulus. We argue that people are attuned to the presence of morally-relevant stimuli and that social motives play a critical role in determining when people detect such stimuli. I will present a series of experiments showing that people detect moral content with greater accuracy than non-moral content--especially when it is presented near the threshold for perceptual awareness. This heightened detection of moral words emerges relatively early in perceptual processing suggesting that enhanced attention to moral content lowers the threshold for stimulus detection. When justice needs are satiated, however, the detection of moral words is selectively diminished. Taken together, this research suggests that perceptually ambiguous moral content reaches conscious awareness more readily than non-moral content—especially when moral motives are active. This work has implications for models of morality as well as perception, suggesting that the social context and moral concerns dynamically tune perception. This approach also offers novel ways to study morality and may ultimately introduce new avenues for moral and ethical interventions.

Jay van Bavel is interested in how values, identities and motivations organize social perception and evaluation, and the underlying neural mechanisms that mediate these processes. This work builds on some basic assumptions about the dynamic nature of human perception and evaluation that are different from the dual process models that permeate psychology. His primary line of research takes a multi-level approach to self-categorization and social identity, blending theory and methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Other lines of research explore the flexibility of moral judgment and the effects of social context and individual differences on social perception and evaluation.

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