PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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The moral dimension of implicit verb causality

In this research, we demonstrate that a simple, well-studied psycholinguistic task (implicit causality) can be leveraged as a novel measure of morally relevant causal attribution. In the implicit causality task, participants decide whether to continue sentences in the form: “Agent verbed Patient because...” with a pronoun referring to the sentential subject or object for a set of verbs conveying events of harm and force, and a set of filler verbs. Three findings support the potential of the implicit causality task to serve as a measure of moral cognition. First, selection of the sentence object in the implicit causality task predicted explicit judgments of agents as less necessary and sufficient and patients as more likely to have controlled, allowed, and deserved events. Second, representing evidence of convergent validity for the task as a measure of moral attitudes, selection of the sentence object for harm/force verbs (and not filler verbs) predicted endorsement of moral values previously linked to blame of victims. Third, hostility toward women predicted selection of the sentence object for harm/force verbs (and not filler verbs) when men were sentential subjects and women were sentential objects (and not vice versa). We replicated these results four times. Taken together, results suggest that people’s extraction of causal information during even the most minimal language processing is infiltrated by moral inference. Moreover, the implicit causality task is a promising tool for to detect motivated causal attribution.

Author Information:

Laura Niemi    
Psychology
Harvard University

Joshua Hartshorne    
Psychology
Boston University

Tobias Gerstenberg    
Psychology
MIT

Liane Young    
Psychology
Boston University

 

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