Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Social Psychology of Morality

The Social Psychology

of Morality: Exploring the causes  

of Good and Evil

Edited by

    Mario Mikulincer &

    Phillip R. Shaver

Reviewed by 

     Kayla Jordan Geoffrey W Sutton

Psychological scientists have built on the ideas put forth by philosophers for centuries. Surveys, laboratory studies, and theory building have significantly expanded our understanding of how people determine what is moral. This handbook includes the work of 40 authors and is published by the American Psychological Association.

Our article was published as a featured review in the Journal of Psychology and Theology (Jordan & Sutton, 2012). I (Sutton) draw on that article in this summary. My purpose is to provide readers with an overview of the contents of this sizable volume. I will also comment on my follow-up work to fill a need identified by Roy Baumeister and Jesse Graham in the conclusion chapter.

The editors open the discussion with a quote by Oscar Wilde.

 “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.” 

The Social Psychology of Morality addresses four main areas in moral psychology: 

1. basic issues and controversies; 
2. motivational and cognitive processes; 
3. developmental, personality, and clinical aspects; 
4. conflict and violence. 

Section 1: Basic Issues

1. Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt address the concept of sacredness from a moral foundations perspective.  
2. Fiery Cushman and Joshua Greene present a model explaining the possible origins of moral principles.
3.  Peter Ditto and Brittany Liu, and the editors theorize that moral beliefs are primarily the result of affective reactions supported by post hoc justifications. 
4. Paul Bloom explores the possibility of an innate, universal morality. 
5. David Pizarro and David Tannenbaum examine the effects of character evaluations on moral judgments. 
6. Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner Present the idea of dyadic morality which states that for an act to have moral value, it must involve two moral beings: an agent and a receiver.

Section 2: Cognitive and Motivational Issues

7. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman explores a dual typology of morality: proscriptive moral system and prescriptive moral system. Janoff-Bulman argues that this dual typology could explain the moral emotions of shame and guilt as well as conservative and liberal political orientations. 
8. Shahar Ayal and Francesca Gino explore justifications for honest behavior.
9. Benoit Monin and Anna Merritt explain moral hypocrisy. 
10. Tal Eyal and Nira Liberman discuss psychological distance and morality from the perspective of construal level theory. 
11. Haslam, Bastian, Laham, and Loughnan explore the role of humanization has in moral judgments and the moral assessment of others.
12.  Sverdlik, Roccas, and Sagiv advance a theory of cross-cultural morality from the values perspectives.

Section 3: Developmental, Personality, and Clinical Perspectives

13. Avi Assor employs self-determination theory to explore the concept of moral motivation.
14. The editors draw upon attachment theory to understand moral and prosocial motives and behaviors. 
15. Walker, Frimer, and Dunlop examine the conflict between the situationalist and dispositional approaches to moral behavior. The authors conclude that an interaction between the two approaches is the best approach for explaining moral behavior.  
16. Doron, Sar-El, Mikulincer, and Kyrios explore how moral concerns relate to obsessive compulsive disorder. 
17. Laurie Anne Pearlman reviews moral concerns in trauma therapies.

Section 4: Morality and Conflict

 18. Hirschberger and Pyszczynski explore how individuals morally justify killing. The authors frame their discussion in light of terror management theory and explore the concepts of moral amplification, moral disengagement, moral identity, and self-deception. 
19. Linda Skitka examines moral courage and convictions and argues that individual’s moral convictions can be more important than group conformity and that the perception of a courageous moral action is the determinant of its goodness or evilness. 
20. Roy Baumeister explains the construct of evil and its causes. 
21. Ervin Staub explores the acts of genocide and intense violence and their moral justifications. Staub examines these acts in light of basic needs theory, personal goal theory, and just world thinking, and he also considers the role of morality in the passivity of bystanders.


Roy Baumeister and Jesse Graham address state of moral psychology and comment on future directions. Current research focuses on the following: perceiving versus doing evil, intrapsychic factors, dyadic processes, intragroup processes, intergroup processes, and the blending of cognitive and emotive factors in moral judgments. In the future, they note the need to address what is missing: sexual morality, the role of religion, and the concept of free will.

So much has happened since this state of the art work was written in 2012. It's primary value now is as a comprehensive review of various subfields within moral psychology as of about 2010 when the authors would have been working on their chapters. Following on the future recommendations by Roy Baumeister and Jesse Graham, I (Sutton) reviewed the research on moral psychology as applied to sexuality and religion. I drew on Moral Foundations Theory developed by Haidt and his colleagues to write A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures (2016). Although many advances continue, Moral Foundations Theory has become a mainstay in exploring current trends in political and religious morality (e.g., Sutton, Kelly, & Huver, 2019).


Jordan, K. & Sutton, G. W. (2013). Contemporary moral psychology: Exploring intrapersonal and interpersonal factors linked to moral decisions. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 41, 98-99.  Academia Link  ResearchGate Link

Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P.R. (Eds.) (2012). The Social Psychology of Morality. Washington, DC . American Psychological Association.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A house divided: Sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick. ISBN: 9781498224888

Sutton, G. W., Kelly, H. L., & Huver, M. (2019). Political identities, religious identity, and the pattern of moral foundations among conservative Christians. Journal of Psychology and Theology, xx, pp. xx-xx. Accepted 6 September 2019. ResearchGate Link     Academia Link

Read more on moral psychology as applied to the study of sexuality and morality in Christian cultures. Buy A House Divided on AMAZON or from the publisher WipfandStock

Read more about Christian Morality in Christian Morality available from WipfandStock and on AMAZON

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