The psychology of the unthinkable: taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000 May;78(5):853-70. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.5.853.


Five studies explored cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses to proscribed forms of social cognition. Experiments 1 and 2 revealed that people responded to taboo trade-offs that monetized sacred values with moral outrage and cleansing. Experiments 3 and 4 revealed that racial egalitarians were least likely to use, and angriest at those who did use, race-tainted base rates and that egalitarians who inadvertently used such base rates tried to reaffirm their fair-mindedness. Experiment 5 revealed that Christian fundamentalists were most likely to reject heretical counterfactuals that applied everyday causal schemata to Biblical narratives and to engage in moral cleansing after merely contemplating such possibilities. Although the results fit the sacred-value-protection model (SVPM) better than rival formulations, the SVPM must draw on cross-cultural taxonomies of relational schemata to specify normative boundaries on thought.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Cognition*
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Random Allocation
  • Social Perception
  • Social Values*
  • Taboo*