Moral values pervade implicit and explicit causal attribution: Evidence from basic language processing


Prior work has found that moral values that build and bind groups - that is, the binding values of ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and preservation of purity extemdash are linked to blaming people who have been harmed. The present research investigated whether people’s endorsement of binding values predicts their assignment of the causal locus of harmful events to the victims of the events. We used an implicit causality task from psycholinguistics in which participants read a sentence in the form ‘SUBJECT verbed OBJECT because…’ where male and female proper names occupy the SUBJECT and OBJECT position. The participants were asked to predict the pronoun that follows ‘because’ - the referent to the subject or object - which indicates their intuition about the likely cause of the event. We also collected explicit judgments of causal contributions and measured participants’ moral values to investigate the relationship between moral values and the causal interpretation of events. Using two verb sets and two independent replications (N = 459, 249, 788), we found that greater endorsement of binding values was associated with a higher likelihood of selecting the object as the cause for harmful events in the implicit causality task, a result consistent with, and supportive of, previous moral psychological work on victim blaming. Endorsement of binding values also predicted explicit causal attributions to victims. Overall, these findings indicate that moral values that support the group rather than the individual reliably predict that people shift the causal locus of harmful events to those affected by the harms.

Niemi, L., Hartshorne, J., Gerstenberg, T., Stanley, M., & Young, L. (2020). Moral values revealt the causality implicit in verb meaning. Cognitive Science, 44(6), e12838.

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