Psychology Abstracts

Hunter-Gatherers And The Origins Of The Morally Exceptional

Coren Lee Apicella

University of Pennsylvania

Kristopher Smith

University of Pennsylvania

Any study of the morally exceptional is predicated on the assumption that morally exceptional people actually exist and that the category itself, is not a cultural invention, one that occurs in the folktales, fables and myths we tell to build character. While there is some evidence that moral character evaluations are panhuman, little is known about cross-cultural variability in many lay beliefs surrounding moral character. Additionally, we know little about how moral character manifests cross-culturally and whether exemplars are found in all societies. Finally, what is the social impact of moral exemplars? Why is it we tell stories about morally exceptional people? Is it because we naturally like and feel that we know these people better than ordinary people? Or is it also because they help to bring out the good in us? The current project will illuminate the study of moral exceptionality by exploring its existence and function in a relatively isolated and largely areligious hunter-gatherer population in Northern Tanzania ­– the Hadza­, whose lifeway typifies how humans lived for the majority of their existence on the planet.

The Hadza are one, of only a few, populations in existence who still obtain the majority of their calories from foraged foods. They rely heavily on each other for day-to-day subsistence and protection, but operate in a world largely devoid of powerful Gods with moralizing concerns and centralized governmental and authoritative institutions (e.g., no police, courts). As such, they provide a rare opportunity to study moral character in the absence of these monitoring and regulatory structures, found in more complex societies and help to answer the degree to which the intuitions that guide our notions of the morally exceptional are cultural products or are shared among all humans.

A panoply of methods will be used to answer each of these questions. Content analysis of existing ethnographic literature will be used to test whether Hadza stories and myths contain moral themes and exemplars. Storyboards will be used to elicit lay beliefs regarding the number of people who are likely to intervene and to what extent, including maximal sacrifice, to save another person. To test for the actual existence of moral exemplars, we will rely on agreement in peer character evaluations of known moral traits in Hadza society (e.g., honesty and generosity). These evaluations will then be correlated with performance on incentivized games designed to measure generosity and cheating. Finally, we will causally test whether stories containing moral exemplars are 1) more memorable and 2) promote generous behavior.

As argued by Walker and Hennig (2004), research on the psychology of the morally exceptional should encompass diverse cultures [1]. Therefore, the current proposal will not only answer fundamental questions about the nature of moral exceptionalism, but also meets the pressing call for psychologists to expand their sample base beyond Western populations. Such research is critical for discovering universal truths regarding our moral psychology but also, conversely, can help unearth the diverse ways that moral behavior and intuitions manifest globally.

Moral Courage

Anna Baumert

University of Koblenz-Landau

Anna Halmburger

University of Koblenz-Landau

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It is a striking phenomenon that bystanders intervene against violations of moral and social norms despite the risk of social, physical, or financial costs to themselves. This kind of prosocial behavior has been termed moral courage (also “Zivilcourage” or “courage civique”). Its relevance for the functioning of human societies has been recognized by a variety of disciplines, including political science (Kennedy, 1955), economics (Bowles & Gintis, 2002; Fehr & Gächter, 2002), and organizational psychology (Comer & Vega, 2011; Near & Miceli, 1985). Moral courage is reflected in behaviors such as whistle blowing, objections to racism, altruistic punishment, as well as helping the victim of a perpetrator. Moral courage is thought to be very rare compared with incidences of norm violations, an assumption that is supported by systematic observations of reactions to norm violations in the laboratory and field (Baumert, Halmburger, & Schmitt, 2013; Brauer & Checkroun, 2005; Milgram, 1974; Voigtländer, 2008). Apparently, situations requiring moral courage involve strong psychological barriers that prevent bystanders from intervening. For these reasons, we argue that morally courageous behavior can serve as an indicator to identify morally exceptional people. With two studies, we investigate what dispositions and dispositional profiles characterize morally courageous persons and prepare them to overcome these barriers. From an integrated process model of moral courage, we derived hypotheses on candidate dispositions that will be assessed with self-report and behavioral measures. In a first study, we recruit persons who have engaged in morally courageous behavior in the past and compare them with a demographically matched group of persons who have not displayed moral courage in the past. In a second study, we confront participants with a norm violation in the lab (a fraud) and test dispositional measures as predictors of intervention. Important, these methodological approaches will help to overcome the limitations of previous research on moral courage that has relied primarily on self-reported intentions in reactions to hypothetical descriptions of norm violations.

Presentations and Publications:

  1. Baumert, A. & Sasse, J. (September 2018). Symposium on Moral Courage at the Congress of the German Psychological Association, Frankfurt, Germany.
  2. Baumert, A. Halmburger, A. & Baumert, A., Schmidt, C. (June 2017.) “Moral courage – Do moral dispositions predict bystander intervention against everyday norm violations?” Poster presented at the Conference of the Association for Research in Personality (ARP), 08.-10. Sacramento, CA, USA.
  3. Baumert, A., Halmburger, A., & Stürmer, H. (July 2017.) “Everyday Moral Courage: Do anticipated costs explain inactivity in the face of witnessed norm violations?” Poster presented at the 18th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology (EASP), 05.-08. Granada, Spain.
  4. Baumert, A., Sasse, J., & Halmburger, A. (July 2018.) “Dynamic personality processes of moral courage.” Presentation at the 19th European Conference on Personality, Zadar, Croatia.


Morally Exceptional In Unexceptional Circumstances: Identifying The Mechanisms And Consequences Of Moral Exceptionality In Everyday Life

Erika Carlson

University of Toronto at Mississauga

Lauren Human

McGill University

Matthew Feinberg

University of Toronto

We define the “morally exceptional” as people who consistently and frequently engage in moral acts in everyday life. Using this definition, we aim to identify MEs by finding a small subset of individuals (~15-20%) within a very large sample (N = ~1000) who consistently engage in the most frequent moral acts across a wide range of settings. Once MEs are identified, we aim to better understand how moral exemplars maintain their steady moral compass. To do so, we will compare MEs to a matched control group on a range of assessments related to moral decision making (do MEs deliberate or use intuition?), moral emotions (are MEs riddled with guilt or overwhelmed with compassion?), and interpersonal perceptions (do MEs see the best in others and are they more able to take others’ perspectives?). We also explore if MEs reap rewards (e.g., popularity) or experience costs (psychological distress) as a result of their exceptionality. This research has theoretical implications for understanding morality, but findings will also have practical implications for people interested in improving morality in themselves and others. Learning more about how morally exceptional individuals are able to maintain their moral compass in the face of temptation and other challenges will pave the way for future interventions designed to improve morality. Likewise, identifying the rewards and obstacles associated with moral exceptionality will also help people overcome the challenges associated becoming more moral.  We believe people who are morally exceptional in unexceptional circumstances have a large impact on society and learning more about this ME will shed light on how the average person can improve his or her morality.

Erika Carlson Lab

  1. Barranti, M., Elsaadawy, N., & Carlson, E. N. (July 2018.) “Are First Impressions of Moral Character Accurate?” Talk to be presented at the European Conference of Personality, Zadar, Croatia.
  2. Elsaadawy, N., *Barranti, M., & Carlson, N. C. (March 2018). “Are first impressions of moral character accurate?” Poster presented at the annual meeting for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, Atlanta, GA.

Neurocognitive Profiles Of The Morally Exceptional: Mechanisms For Decisions And Social Influence

Molly Crockett

University of Oxford

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Duke University

Linda Skitka

University of Illinois at Chicago

Wilhelm Hofman

University of Cologne

Hongbo Yu

Peking University

Human moral values are diverse, but there are many areas of widespread agreement. Chief among these is a recognition that preventing or relieving harm to others is morally good. Thus, a reasonable starting point for investigating the morally exceptional is harm prevention: a willingness to prevent harm to others, even at cost to oneself. Examining harm prevention in its most basic form is of broad interest because a wide array of moral virtues – from generosity, to compassion, to fairness – involve pushing aside pure self-interest to make room for a concern for others.

Our research will address three separate but related questions. First, how does harm prevention relate to moral experiences in daily life? Second, what are the psychological and brain mechanisms of morally exceptional harm prevention? And third, how can the morally exceptional influence others? We will address these questions by combining laboratory measures of moral behavior, brain imaging, and smartphone-based surveys of everyday moral experiences.

We will compare the brain activity of morally exceptional people with typical people as they decide whether to sacrifice money for themselves to prevent painful electric shocks to a stranger. This allows us to ask whether morally exceptional decisions result from an increased sensitivity to others’ suffering, or a stronger representation of moral principles. We can also ask whether morally exceptional people have to overcome a temptation to behave selfishly, or whether they do not experience such temptations in the first place.

Using smartphone-based experience sampling methods, we will compare the everyday moral experiences of morally exceptional and typical people. This will allow us to determine whether the morally exceptional are more likely to interpret their experiences in a moral light and whether they derive more happiness and purpose from behaving morally.

Finally, in a separate study we will test whether people change their own moral decisions after observing the decisions of a morally exceptional role model. We will ask whether participants are influenced by the choices of role models; if so, by how much; and whether people’s actual and perceived similarity with the role model affects the degree of influence. Understanding how role models can influence people’s moral behavior can help identify how to most effectively leverage morally exceptional role models for social change.

Molly Crockett Faculty Website


  1. Yu, Siegel & Crockett (March, 2018.) “How positive and negative role models drive plasticity in moral preferences.” Poster presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Atlanta, GA.
  2. Yu, Siegel & Crockett (May, 2018.) “How positive and negative role models drive plasticity in moral preferences.” Poster presented at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society, Brooklyn, NY.

Think To The Past To Generate Concern For Future Generations: Environmental Moral Exemplars

Geoffrey Goodwin

University of Pennsylvania

Hanne Watkins

University of Melbourne

Human-induced climate change poses acute moral and psychological challenges.  The harmful consequences of climate change will most severely future generations, raising questions regarding our inter-generational moral obligations. Critically, because the worst consequences of climate change are temporally distant, they do not kindle moral passions as effectively as do more proximate concerns. The task of generating moral concern to overcome environmental threats of this sort therefore presents formidable psychological challenges.

Yet, there are many individuals who have overcome these challenges, and who devote their lives peacefully to addressing environmental problems.  These “environmental exemplars” provide an ideal test bed for understanding moral excellence. Such exemplars exhibit numerous moral virtues, including justice, bravery, commitment, compassion, and perhaps most strikingly, the capacity to take a long-range moral perspective.

In this proposal, we outline a three-part plan to study environmental exemplars.  First, we will study ordinary individuals’ conceptions of environmental exemplars, to understand which moral virtues such exemplars are seen as exhibiting.  Second, we will conduct interviews and personality surveys with a select group of moral exemplars. Third, we will examine whether insights gleaned from studying environmental exemplars apply to the psychology of ordinary individuals.

Our approach is partly exploratory, but we will also test a key hypothesis: that environmental exemplars see themselves as embedded within a historical narrative which they find deeply important to sustain.  In other words, we propose that their environmental commitment stems in part from looking to the past to generate concern for the future.  We will conduct studies to explore psychological drivers of environmental commitment, with a focus on predicting moral concern for future generations, behavioral intentions to perform environmentally relevant behaviors, and most importantly, costly behaviors undertaken to support the environment.

Our underlying goal is to better understand what motivates exceptional moral concern for the environment and for future generations.  We hope to yield theoretical insights regarding the nature of environmental exemplarity, and moral excellence more generally, and to provide greater insight into practical strategies that may generate greater concern for the environment, for non-human animals, and for future generations.

Presentations and Publications:

  1. Watkins, H. M., & Goodwin, G. P. (2017.)  “Reflecting on sacrifices made by past generations increases obligations towards future generations.”  Poster presented at the Justice and Morality pre-conference for the Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. San Antonio, USA.

Identifying Morally Exceptional Future Business Leaders And Examining The Possibility Of Moral Transmission

Erik Helzer

Johns Hopkins University

Taya Cohen

Carnegie Mellon University

Brandy Aven

Carnegie Mellon University

The purpose of this project is to identify the morally exceptional within a sample of future business leaders, to understand the psycho-social factors that distinguish them among their peers, and to examine their impact on others’ morality. Full-time MBA students will be assessed on three primary moral traits, Honesty-Humility, Conscientiousness, and Guilt Proneness, as well as trustworthiness, as measured by a behavioral game. Students scoring high on the first three characteristics and who show trustworthiness on the last will qualify for our subsample of morally exceptional students. Additional assessments of moral identity, moral awareness, and peer-reported morality and group contribution will be administered in order to hone in on the distinct psycho-social characteristics of the morally exceptional. In addition, students’ standing on social prominence (their place in the informal student network) will be used to identify among the exceptional a group of “moral beacons” – those who are both exceptionally moral and prominent to their peers. We will examine the degree to which the morally exceptional influence their peers’ moral cognition by looking at changes in students’ moral thinking over the course of the semester, modeled as a function of the frequency of their interaction with moral beacons.

Presentations and Publications:

  1. Helzer, E. G., Furr, R. M., & Jayawickreme, E. (in press). Moral character: Current insights and future directions. To appear in V. Zeigler-Hill & T. Shackelford (Eds.), SAGE Handbook of Personality and Individual Differences. New York: SAGE Publishing.

Enlightened Compassion: Psychological, Behavioral, And Physiological Profiles

Simon Laham

University of Melbourne

Luke Smillie

University of Melbourne

Stefan Bode

University of Melbourne

Yoshihisa Kashima

University of Melbourne

The world faces a variety of pressing moral and social problems. From motivating collective action on climate change, to addressing seemingly intractable tribal and value conflicts, to reducing inequality and poverty, many of these challenges have social and moral dilemmas at their centers. The ability to resolve such dilemmas in a manner that is mutually satisfactory to all stakeholders is an important kind of moral exceptionality.

More specifically, we argue that such dilemmas require morally creative solutions, and that moral creativity is underpinned by a constellation of personality traits that we call enlightened compassion. Thus, this project will explore the psychological, behavioral and physiological characteristics of enlightened compassion, moral imagination, and moral creativity.

Morally creative solutions are those that demonstrate originality, evidence of perspective taking, and evidence of reflection on a diversity of moral concepts/values. Such solutions, because they are sensitive to the plurality of points of view held by various stakeholders, are more likely to be accepted as tractable responses to dilemmas than are other, less creative responses.

In order to reach such desirable, morally creative solutions, one must possess the competence of moral imagination, which involves the capacities to simulate a diversity of possible courses of action and to reflect on the moral dimensions of such possibilities. We argue that there exists a constellation of personality traits that underpin moral imagination, and thus moral creativity. We call this constellation enlightened compassion. People with enlightened compassion can be described in terms of interrelated tendencies toward compassion/empathy, affiliation/warmth, and flexible/inclusive thought.

Across three studies we will explore the nature of enlightened compassion and its relation both to moral imagination (as a competence) and to morally creative problem solving (as behavior/performance). In Study 1 we build on pilot work to show that enlightened compassion is an identifiable, reliable, and valid construct. In Study 2, we replicate and extend this work in a sample from a different country (Australia). In Study 3, we use various behavioral, neural, and physiological measures to explore the biological underpinnings of capacities related to enlightened compassion, moral imagination, and moral creativity.

In identifying those competencies that allow people to creatively resolve pressing moral and social dilemmas, we hope to be able to inform educational practices aimed at developing this particular kind of moral exceptionality.

Antecedents, Dynamics, And Consequences Of Morally Exceptional Person-Situation Transactions

John Rauthmann

University of Berlin at Humboldt

Wilhelm Hofmann

University of Cologne

They are the morally best of us and even exemplary to many people, but not much is known from the perspective of scientific psychology about morally exceptional people: “saints”, “moral paragons”, or “moral beacons.” This project tracks several morally exceptional people in their daily lives and measures how they see themselves, how they are seen by others, as well as what they think, feel, want, and do in their everyday situations. In doing so, we hope to shed light on three primary research questions that seek to answer what it means to be morally exceptional:

(1) How can we “measure” who is morally exceptional and who not? How would good measures look like?

(2) How do morally exceptional people live their lives? Do their daily situations provide more room for moral thought and action? Do they seek opportunities to exact their morality? Do they report or talk about their morality (e.g., in face-to-face communication, on online social networks)? Do they struggle with moral dilemmas? Are they “good” under all circumstances, or do they also have a “dark side”?

(3) What are the consequences of being morally exceptional? Do morally exceptional people lead happy and fulfilling lives? Are they liked, popular, and admired by others?

Answering these questions serve to deepen our understanding of morally exemplary people. By looking at how they live their life, we can learn a lot about what is “exceptional” about them and what makes them tick. That knowledge may ultimately be used to improve our own and others’ moral character and behavior.