Of Morals and Mores

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Science  12 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5737, pp. 990
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5737.990d

What is it that makes moral beliefs nonnegotiable? Such beliefs are thought to transcend cultural variation—in short, to be universal— and they are often associated with intense emotion, as are strongly held attitudes. Across a range of situations, however, Skitka et al. find evidence consistent with their proposal that attitudes and moral convictions differ. When questioned about their social distance preferences, where in-laws were proximal and public officials were distal, study participants were less tolerant of social relations with people whose convictions disagreed with their own than when the discordant positions on issues were regarded merely as a clash of attitudes. This abstract type of preference could in fact be converted into a simple physical measure of how close to another person with known similar or dissimilar convictions a participant chose to sit. Furthermore, grouped participants demonstrated a greater willingness to engage in discussion and negotiation with others when opposing beliefs arose from nonmoral attitudes rather than convictions, in line with recent work suggesting distinct emotional versus cognitive neural substrates for intuitive versus reasoned social appraisals. — GJC

J. Pers. Soc. Psych. 88, 895 (2005).

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