In July, a New York Times op-ed, “The Clinton Contamination,” went nearly viral, as it were. In it, columnist Maureen Dowd presents the Clintons as having a particular moral failure: an inability to be truthful.

The piece is replete with purity rhetoric. Sometimes the treatment is subtle, Dowd describes Clintons’ behavior in a way that hints at pernicious contagions: “Their vast carelessness drags down everyone around them, but they persevere, and even thrive.” Hillary “could be getting fired…Instead, she’s on a glide path to a big promotion.”

Other times the treatment is unambiguous: “arrogant, selfish actions by the Clintons contaminated three of the purest brands in Washington.”

There’s a grade-school style zinger: “Hillary’s goo got on Obama.”


Then the piece culminates with a shift from icky to eerie: “the Clintons operate in shadows”… dealings with them are described as “dancing with the Arkansas devil in the pale moonlight.”

This week, matters related to truth and transparency have been hot topics in the 2016 Election coverage. Columnist Nicholas Kristof lambasted Republican candidate Trump for his free-wheeling speech style that involves lots of hyperbole. We learned that despite Trump leaving out more facts from his sentences, people perceive Trump as more transparent than Clinton. A survey released this week revealed that 55 percent of likely voters say Clinton is not honest enough to be president (43 percent say she is). Likely voters are split on Trump: 50 percent say he is honest enough to be president and 48 percent say he is not.

It is impossible that a single op-ed, “The Clinton Contamination,” even such a vivid one, could have produced this perplexing pattern in public perception. But purity rhetoric is powerful. What if we were served the “The Trump Taint”?

Moral philosophers have argued that disgust makes a great vehicle for moral condemnation (Nussbaum, 2006; Kelly, 2011). But what does it mean for a human being to be “tainted” or “contaminated”? Is it really different from that person being “hurt”, “wounded” or “injured”?

In moral psychology there is an ongoing debate about whether impurity really just boils down to harm. Evidence marshaled for an account that collapses impurity down into harm indicates that when people are asked why “impure” acts that appear on the surface to be victimless are wrong, they reliably cite the capacity of these acts to harm people. They even identify “victims” of these purity violations (Gray, Schein & Ward, 2014).

We have a remarkable capacity to materialize potential victims out of thin air. We also erase victims, for a number of reasons. But does having mental agility that allows us to see and un-see harm warrant closing the book on the purity domain as its own important, powerful moral domain?

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In new research with Dr. Sara Cordes, Dr. Liane Young and RA Mackenna Woodring, I investigated the role of voters’ beliefs and desires in the mathematical processing of election-related information just before the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.

We presented voters with mental math problems based on fictional polling results, and asked participants who they intended to vote for, who they expected to win, how emotionally invested they were in the preferred candidate winning the election, and how much they liked and agreed with the preferred candidate.

We found that both committed Obama and Romney voters arrived at solutions that symmetrically underestimated support for the opponent and overestimated support for the preferred candidate. An identical experiment conducted 10 months after the election revealed the absence of this symmetrical bias: Obama and Romney voters alike produced estimates that aligned with the Obama win (i.e., they underestimated Romney leads). This result, and a finding in the first experiment that a subset of voters who didn’t expect the preferred candidate to win did not underestimate the opponent’s lead suggest that estimates were largely constrained by participants’ expectations about the likely or actual state of the world. Moreover, within the constraints of expectations, estimates tracked with the value voters attached to the candidates, i.e., how much participants liked and agreed with them.

This work suggest that a necessary condition for the biased processing of quantitative information in favor of one’s preferred candidate may be a true belief that they will actually win. A simple desire that they will win may be insufficient.

What makes people praise an allocation as fair? Fairness is typically investigated in social psychology and social neuroscience as a matter of equal allocations: whether people’s allotments match. But allocations that result in one person benefiting more than others might also be judged as fair; for example, when they function to pay back a favor (reciprocity), or help the person most in need (charity).

This suggests that the extent to which an allocation is judged as morally praiseworthy and fair may be as much about allocators’ intentions as it is about the resulting allotments. In research conducted with Liane Young, we reveal the role of complex social cognition in people’s moral evaluation of resource allocations.

In four studies (total N=324), participants read vignettes involving an allocator giving out a resource using a procedure based either on impartiality, reciprocity or charity. In three behavioral studies, participants morally judged the allocators and reported perceptions of the allocators’ motivations. In the fourth study, participants underwent functional brain imaging as they judged the vignettes.

First, the behavioral studies revealed that reciprocity and charity were the least and most morally praised, respectively, but also shared many other features. They were both rated significantly less fair than impartiality. They were also both rated as more motivated by emotion and consideration of the unique states of individuals compared to impartiality. Impartiality stood apart; it was rated as easiest to judge as “doing the right thing,” unemotional, unmotivated by the unique states of individuals, sourced in standard procedures, and by far, the most fair. Finally, brain imaging results revealed that morally evaluating both reciprocity and charity recruited significantly more activity in brain regions for theory-of-mind (precuneus, VMPFC, DMPFC) compared to impartiality.

These findings suggest that the extent to which allocation procedures do not trigger complex social cognition — e.g., mentalizing about allocators’ motives and relationships — may play an important role in whether people morally evaluate such allocations as fair.

I presented a talk in a symposium at the Society For Personality and Social Psychology Convention on some of these findings: Person-blind and person-based fairness: Investigating the differences among impartiality, charity, and reciprocity.


In my fellowship at Harvard University, I workied with Dr. Steven Pinker and Dr. Jesse Snedeker on an interdisciplinary project called The Psycholinguistics of Morality. Besides revealing the complexity of causal processing of morally-relevant action in language and thought, the project addressed specific concerns within and across disciplines. For linguistics, these studies aimed to inform the critical project of delineating intrinsic properties of the lexicon from extrinsic effects on language from world knowledge. For social-moral psychology, these studies brought new focus to the role of purely linguistic features in moral judgment of human behavior. And, by increasing understanding of the consequences of shifting causal representations in language and thought, this research addressed issues at the intersection of linguistics, cognitive science, and social-moral psychology, including the extent to which explicit causal models are alterable through interventions on implicit causality via general cognitive representations.

A long history of research in psycholinguistics has investigated verbs’ implicit causality biases — or, the tendency for verbs conveying agent-patient transitive events (“X verbed Y.”) to lead people to attribute causality to the sentence subject (agent, “X”), or sentence object (patient, “Y”). The extent to which patterns in implicit verb causality should be considered purely lexical features versus the result of richer inferences is debated.

In a series of studies carried out in collaboration with Josh Hartshorne, Tobi Gerstenberg, and Liane Young, I tracked implicit causality biases using a simple psycholinguistics task (e.g., participants selected a pronoun referring to “X” or “Y” to resolve: “X verbed Y because…”) and a range of morally relevant and neutral verbs. Results indicated that implicit causality for various verbs conveying harm and force (e.g., raped, killed, coerced) is predicted by (1) explicit judgments about agents and patients — i.e., ratings of patients’ capacities to control, allow and deserve events, and agents’ causal necessity and sufficiency; and, (2) participants’ own moral values — specifically, the extent to which participants endorse values that prohibit transgressions that fall outside the dyadic agent-patient framework.

Taken together, results indicate that moral values and generalized judgments about agency and patiency have the capacity to affect implicit verb causality, particularly for events involving harm and force. The implicit causality task promises to be a useful instrument for future research on motivate causal attribution.

Why do victims sometimes receive sympathy for their suffering and at other times scorn and blame? In a series of studies, we show a powerful role for moral values in attitudes toward victims. We measured moral values associated with unconditionally prohibiting harm (“individualizing values”) versus moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (“binding values”: loyalty, obedience to authority, and concern about purity).

Increased endorsement of binding values predicted increased ratings of victims as contaminated and tainted (Studies 1-4); increased blame and responsibility attributed to victims, increased perceptions of victims’ (versus perpetrators’) behaviors as contributing to the outcome, and increased focus on victims (Studies 2-3). Patterns persisted controlling for politics, just world beliefs, and right-wing authoritarianism.

Moreover, putting the perpetrator rather the victim into the sentence subject position in the majority of sentences in vignettes describing structurally identical sexual assault incidents (our experimental manipulation of linguistic focus) reduced people’s ratings of blame to victims. This smaller effect was observed in addition to the effect of moral value on judgments of victims.

Taken together, the results across four studies highlight the powerful role of personal ideology, and a subtler role for our linguistic manipulation of focus, in predicting attitudes toward victims and perpetrators. Put plainly, the results suggest that knowing a person’s stances on disloyalty, disobedience, and impurity may afford a prediction of that person’s perception of victims as responsible and blameworthy. Moral values constitute a core framework that organizes different psychological processes — including perceptions of contamination and injury and attributions of responsibility — into fairly predictable patterns of condemnation across the victim–perpetrator dyad.

Why do binding values predict blame of victims? Binding values, moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (loyalty, obedience to authority, and concern about purity), contrast with more widely endorsed moral values promoting universal caring (i.e. “individualizing values”). Importantly, binding values actually sometimes require people to harm victims. For example, to be loyal to the ingroup, one might be required to snub a member of the outgroup. To be obedient to authority, one might be required to obey orders to attack others. In some groups, preservation of purity might motivate quarantining outcasts or even honor killings. That higher endorsement of binding values reliably predicts greater attribution of responsibility to victims might come about as a result of moral worldview that requires being less sensitive to victim suffering.