How do ideas enter the moral domain?
Broadly, my research investigates the process of moralization (when preferences become values) and its consequences for behavior, cognition, and perception. Specifically, I study what happens when we frame an idea in moral terms, specifically why, how, and when it can and can't be used to frame social issues and promote social change. To study moral framing, and specifically moral language, I utilize a number of different approaches: I examine moral words—the building blocks of moral framing—and how they are visually salient (i.e., more likely to "pop-out" in visual awareness). I also study the consequences of using this salient language, specifically how perceptions of social issues change when they are framed in moral terms.
Building Blocks of Moral Framing: Moral Words
In my research, Jay Van Bavel and I have found that morally relevant stimuli "pop out" in visual awareness likely due to their relevance for moral motives (e.g., justice concerns), as well as how other active motives can override this salience with consequences for ethical decision-making. We have identified the intersection of morality and perception as an emerging and exciting new avenue for research in psychology.
Moral Framing in Context: Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Sexual assault is the broad term used to refer to any sexual activity involving a person who does not provide consent or cannot provide consent (due to alcohol, drugs, or other causes of incapacitation). Women between the ages of 18-25 are at greatest risk for being sexually assaulted and among women enrolled in an undergraduate institution, between 20 and 25 percent are expected to experience sexual assault (Krebs et al., 2016).
In my research, Betsy Levy Paluck and I are developing a novel behavioral science perspective to this issue (under review), which examines how situations influence and interact with individuals’ identities, perceptions, and goals, generates novel insights into causes and solutions. Specifically, we are conducting field experiments on campus to assess prevention efforts aimed at reminding students about consent using moral and norms-related language (see pre-registrations). For more, here is audio from a recent talk given at the Women in Public Policy Seminar Series at the Harvard Kennedy School.