August 2016
Volume 16, Issue 12
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2016
Moral Psychophysics
Author Affiliations
  • Julian De Freitas
    Department of Psychology, Harvard University
  • George Alvarez
    Department of Psychology, Harvard University
Journal of Vision September 2016, Vol.16, 447. doi:
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      Julian De Freitas, George Alvarez; Moral Psychophysics. Journal of Vision 2016;16(12):447.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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In a typical Michotte billiard ball display, one ball moves and then stops next to a second ball, which then moves. In such displays, people can't help but see the first ball causally launch the second. In an analogous fashion, certain types of object motion (e.g. 'chasing', stopping and starting) irresistibly induce the perception of animacy (Scholl & Tremoulet 2000, Trends in Cognitive Sciences). Here we investigate whether perceived causality and animacy influence moral intuitions (blame, moral character). Participants saw two objects move around in an animate, self-propelled manner, then stop some distance apart. Next, the objects interacted either causally (e.g., launching), or non-causally (e.g. the second object moved before the first could hit it). In all conditions, the second object then happened to get trapped inside a container and 'tried to get out'. We reasoned that the first object should appear responsible for this negative outcome after a causal interaction, but less so after a non-causal interaction, during which the second object should appear to move intentionally rather than against its will. We found that moral judgments varied across 7 different object interactions (N = 375 between-subject design, p < .001), and these judgments correlated with intentionality ratings for the second object (R2 = 0.82, p = .004). When the objects interacted without initially moving animately then moral judgments were less severe (N = 919, p < .001), yet the basic pattern of moral judgments across conditions was similar for inanimate and animate trials (p = .412). We also found similar effects when participants read a verbal narrative (typical of moral psychology studies) accompanied by real-world objects interacting causally vs. non-causally (N = 194, p = .033). Thus, basic principles of perception can influence social judgments, stretching current notions of what vision is 'for'.

Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2016


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