Our Moral Vocabulary

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Science  09 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6184, pp. 559
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6184.559-c

Situational factors can exert ephemeral influence on cognitive processes. These effects are not short-lived in the sense of being refuted by the next paper; rather, they can be observed only when stronger or mainline factors fail to dominate the neural pathways underpinning our thoughts. Gantman and Van Bavel nicely illustrate how this works by measuring the extent to which a briefly visible morality-related word is more likely to be detected than an unrelated word. They presented people with words and nonwords for durations ranging from 20 to 100 ms. At the longest durations, words and nonwords were accurately categorized, and there were no differences in accuracy between moral and nonmoral words. At the shortest durations, all words and nonwords were equally difficult to identify. In the middle, where the perceptual awareness for words was near threshold, those words semantically related to morality were slightly—and significantly—more readily identified correctly, so that a 40-ms peek was sufficient, whereas nonmoral words needed an extra 10 ms of exposure.

Cognition 132, 22 (2014).

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