The paradox of moral focus

Cognition. 2011 May;119(2):166-78. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.01.004. Epub 2011 Feb 18.


When we evaluate moral agents, we consider many factors, including whether the agent acted freely, or under duress or coercion. In turn, moral evaluations have been shown to influence our (non-moral) evaluations of these same factors. For example, when we judge an agent to have acted immorally, we are subsequently more likely to judge the agent to have acted freely, not under force. Here, we investigate the cognitive signatures of this effect in interpersonal situations, in which one agent ("forcer") forces another agent ("forcee") to act either immorally or morally. The structure of this relationship allowed us to ask questions about both the "forcer" and the "forcee." Paradoxically, participants judged that the "forcer" forced the "forcee" to act immorally (i.e. X forced Y), but that the "forcee" was not forced to act immorally (i.e. Y was not forced by X). This pattern obtained only for human agents who acted intentionally. Directly changing participants' focus from one agent to another (forcer versus forcee) also changed the target of moral evaluation and therefore force attributions. The full pattern of judgments may provide a window into motivated moral reasoning and focusing bias more generally; participants may have been motivated to attribute greater force to the immoral forcer and greater freedom to the immoral forcee.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude
  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Motivation
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult