Is it harder to process immoral information?

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A long-standing theoretical debate concerns the involvement of principled reasoning versus relatively automatic intuitive-emotional processing in moral cognition. To address this, we investigated whether the mental models formed during story comprehension contain a moral dimension and whether this process is affected by cognitive load. A total of 72 participants read stories about fictional characters in a range of moral situations, such as a husband being tempted to commit adultery. Each story concluded with a “moral” or “immoral” target sentence. Consistent with a framework of efficient extraction of moral information, participants took significantly longer to read immoral than moral target sentences. Moreover, the magnitude of this effect was not compromised by cognitive load. Our findings provide evidence of efficient coding of moral dimensions during narrative comprehension and demonstrate that this process does not require cognitively intense forms of principled reasoning.

Source: “Assessing the automaticity of moral processing: Efficient coding of moral information during narrative comprehension” from The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 62, Issue 1 January 2009 , pages 41 – 49

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