Lab Research

Understanding the Process of Moral judgments of Blame

How do people make moral judgments?  On the face of it, this seems to be an obvious question. When people see (im)moral behavior they easily judge it as blameworthy or praiseworthy.
However, the underlying mechanics of this seemingly simple act are extremely complex. People integrate information about social norms, causality, agents' mental states, and their own emotions to produce a judgment of blame or praise.
Our work attempts to understand the process by which people move from perceiving a moral violation to pronouncing a judgment.  We examine how people process mental state information and search for information when it is missing. Additionally, we try to answer questions about how emotion influences information processing, and finally we test the differences between judgments of blame that exist only in one's head versus judgments of blame that are expressed publicly. 


Inferring Others' Mental States

What information do people glean from social norms and social pressure, and how do people use this information to make judgments about intentionality, motives, and morality?  Our current work in this area focuses on the role of social norms and social pressure in shaping perceptions of mental states and morality.
In one recent set of studies we show that people's intuitions regarding whether an agent brought about a particular outcome intentionally depends on the social factors surrounding the decision to act.  When agents are coerced to act, people perceive them as lacking important behavior-consistent motives and therefore judge the agent's behavior as less intentional (Monroe & Reeder, 2011; Monroe & Reeder, 2015).
Another set of studies tests an asymmetry in people's use of positive and negative social norms for making inferences of an agent's mental states and moral status.  Information about negative social norms shapes perceptions of others' mind and morality, but positive social norms have no such effect (Monroe, Dillon, Guglielmo & Baumeister, under review).


The Folk Concept of Free Will

If you ask people if they have free will, most will likely respond: “Yes, obviously.” But what are people asserting when they say this?  Some researchers argue that people’s belief in free will is deeply metaphysical, or even magical, and likely to be overturned by science (overturning morality with it).  However, little work to date has actually examined what people believe about free will and how those beliefs affect morality.

Our lab's work shows that, in contrast to popularized views, people conceptualize free will in a very ordinary and pragmatic way.  They define free will as a choice that fulfills one’s desires and is free from internal or external constraints (Baumeister & Monroe, 2014; Monroe & Malle, 2010; 2014).  Moreover, it is this everyday concept that is at the heart of people's moral judgments.  People easily judge agents of any kind (e.g., human and non-human) as morally blameworthy for misdeeds as long as those agents have the capacity for choice and intentional action (Monroe, Dillon & Malle, 2014).