The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions: Are we all liberals at heart? –by Meagan Watson and Caroline Minott–


According to Wright and Baril (2011), conservatives and liberals disagree on a variety of issues because they have different construals (understandings/interpretations) of morality. The researchers used the moral foundation theory as a way to understand this phenomenon. According to the moral foundation theory, people tend to gravitate towards either individualizing or binding moral foundations. Those with individualizing foundations tend to see morality through the constructs of fairness/reciprocity (i.e human concern with fairness, reciprocity, and justice) and harm/care (i.e human concern with caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm). Alternatively, those with binding foundations tend to see morality through the constructs of ingroup/loyalty (i.e patriotism and self-sacrifice), authority/respect (i.e obedience and respect for authority), and purity/sanctity.

Previous research has found that liberalism tends to correlate with individualizing foundations, while conservatism tends to correlate with binding foundations. Wright and Baril (2011) wanted to explore this phenomenon further, by seeing whether these differences in moral foundations predicted individual responses in the same way – despite possible parental, cultural, or temperamental influences. Some researchers suspect that the differences in liberal and conservative moral foundations are a byproduct of Enlightenment philosophers “narrowing” the focus of morality down to harm and fairness. In this view, liberals still have binding foundation intuitions but actively override them. The current study asks the question: are the differences between liberals’ and conservatives’ moral foundations due to an unconscious cognitive overriding of binding foundation intuitions, or are they due to an enhancement of them? Since both of these conditions takes effort, the researchers used self-regulation depletion/cognitive load tasks to get at participants’ automatic moral responses.

The study consisted of 206 undergraduate students from the College of Charleston. All the participants were required to complete an online version of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of two subscales, one asking for more relevance and the other asking about moral agreement. From this the participants were assigned to one of three MFQ conditions: control, self-regulation depletion, or cognitive load. In the control condition, the researchers simply asked participants to write about an imaginary visit to the zoo. The self-regulation depletion condition were give the same instructions as the control, but were given additional instructions to not think about white bears. If at any point they thought of white bears, they were instructed to suppress those thoughts and continue writing. Those in the cognitive load condition were asked to fill out the MFQ while concurrently counting the number of high pitched tones playing on an online metronome.

The experimenter’s hypothesis was correct – as they found that the foundation responses were in fact predicted by political orientation. Specifically, the more liberal a participant was, the lower they scored  in binding foundations. This difference, however, disappeared in the two experimental conditions. After putting harm/fairness into one “individualizing” foundation scale, and authority/ingroup/purity into one “binding” foundation scale, they found no significant difference between liberals and conservatives. When cognitive resources were compromised, participants only responded strongly to the individualizing foundations (harm/fairness), with both liberals and conservatives deprioritizing the binding foundations (authority/in-group/purity). In other words, automatic moral reactions of conservatives turned out to be more like those of liberals. These findings suggest that harm and fairness could be core components of morality – for both liberals and conservatives. While many believed in an innate five-foundation moral code, in which liberals would narrow their foundations down to two, we may actually begin life with a two-foundation moral foundation. From here, conservatives emerge by way of expanding upon these two-foundations (adding authority/ingroup/purity).

While this study seems to have high internal validity, we have a criticism of the external validity. With a participant pool of undergraduate students from a West Virginian college, these results cannot be generalized cross-nationally and cross-age. It would be interesting to see whether these results replicate for individuals who are older and have identified with conservative/liberal ideology for several decades. It is possible that older conservatives, when cognitive resources are compromised, do not show that same deprioritization of binding foundations. Perhaps, with older conservatives, binding foundations will have become a part of their automatic processes. This poses a new research question: is there an age when one’s individualizing and/or binding foundations become an automatic part of the way one processes the world, or will one always show a two-foundation moral baseline?

Wright, J. C., & Baril, G. (2011). The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions: Are we all liberals at heart?. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(5), 1007-1012.


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