Motivated Moral Perception

Moral motives (just like any other) when chronically or temporarily activated, can shape conscious perception. Active goals tune perception towards relevant means for fulfilling the goal.  Accordingly, we have found that due to the activation of chronically activated moral motives (e.g., justice concerns) morally relevant words are detected with greater frequency than matched non-moral words over and above word length, frequency, arousal, valence, and extremity (termed the moral pop-out effect; Gantman & Van Bavel, Cognition).

Indeed, further research has revealed that the moral pop-out effect is partially a motivational phenomenon. When justice motives are satiated (vs. activated), in an ecologically valid manner, moral perception is diminished (Gantman & Van Bavel, working paper). This work merges cognitive, affective and vision science theory and methods with social psychological research on both motivation and morality. Moreover, evidence for the motivational tuning of perception speaks to a fundamental debate about the nature of the human mind, regarding whether motives exert a top-down effect on perception (Gantman & Van Bavel, BBS commentary). Finally, this work is part of a cutting edge trend in the study of the role of visual perception in moral psychology (Gantman & Van Bavel, TiCS).