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Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 13, 2019

Emotional People Make More Extreme Judgments

by Justin F. Landy
Angry Older woman with smoke coming out of her ears

In February 2019, a Minnesota man named Kenneth Lilly was involved in a traffic accident in which his car collided with a school bus with a driver and a young girl inside.  Rather than call the police, Lilly pulled out a gun and opened fire on the bus, injuring the driver. 

I think we can all agree that Lilly’s actions were wrong.  But how does this story make you feel?  Angry?  Disgusted?  Sad?

Psychologists like me who study moral judgments, – how people evaluate the morality of an action – spend a lot of time arguing about the details of this, but most of us agree that how people feel about an action has something to do with whether they say it’s right or wrong, good or bad.  So, it would make sense that people who feel emotions more strongly might make more extreme moral judgments.  But is that true?  And, if so, which emotions matter? 

Many researchers say that disgust is especially related to our moral judgments, and research does show that people who are more prone to feeling disgust make harsher moral judgments of bad actions.  But is disgust special in this way?  Or could it be that people who feel any emotion more strongly – not just disgust – might also make more extreme moral judgments?

My colleague, Jared Piazza at Lancaster University, and I had the idea that there is nothing special about feelings of disgust, or even about moral judgment, for that matter.  Instead, we thought that people who feel emotions more strongly, in general, make more extreme evaluative judgments of many sorts.

We can measure how prone people are to disgust by asking them a series of questions like “how disgusting is stepping on dog poop?” or “if you see someone vomit, does it make you sick to your stomach?”  People who are more prone to feeling disgust should say that stepping on dog poop is more gross, and that seeing someone vomit makes them queasier, than people who are less prone to feeling disgust.  Similar kinds of questions can tell us how prone a person is to feeling anger, sadness, and other emotions.

In our studies, we found that people who more strongly feel emotions of all sorts – not just disgust – also tend to make more severe moral judgments of bad actions. 

We also found that people who are more prone to disgust not only make more extreme moral judgments, but they also make more extreme judgments of intelligence in others, and they even make more extreme aesthetic judgments.  They like things that are pretty more, and things that are ugly less, than people who are less easily disgusted.   What this means is that people who are prone to disgust do indeed make harsher moral judgments, but for reasons that have nothing to do with disgust or moral judgments.  What’s going on is simply that emotional people feel more strongly when they evaluate things, and those stronger emotions go hand-in-hand with more extreme judgments.

Of course, we cannot predict how any particular person will feel about any specific action.  Maybe you think that Kenneth Lilly was completely justified in endangering that little girl’s life when he shot at her school bus (though I doubt it).  What we can say is that, in general, emotional people make more extreme judgments of things in their worlds than less emotional people do.

So, when you answered my question above, if you said that Lilly’s actions made you feel angry, or disgusted, or sad, then you probably also said that what he did was wrong.  That moral judgment you made does not seem to have anything to do with any of those particular emotions.  But, if you are the type of person who is emotional, who feels things deeply and powerfully, you probably also think that his actions were particularly heinous.

For Further Reading:

Landy, J. F., & Piazza, J. (2019). Re-evaluating moral disgust: Sensitivity to many affective states predicts extremity in many evaluative judgments. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 211-219. 

Justin F. Landy is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, and will join the faculty at Nova Southeastern University as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the fall.  He studies how people make moral judgments.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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