Ravi Iyer, a graduate student and colleague of mine at the University of Southern California in social psychology, blogs regularly about moral psychology at polipsych.com, and tweets from @ravi_polipsych. He collaborates with others on YourMorals.org, where interested individuals may participate in research in political and moral psychology. I asked him to contribute a guest post about his work.

As a moral psychology researcher, I was very excited when Jason wrote that his posts this week would cover moral psychology, and I have enjoyed his previous posts concerning the evolution of morality and the fact that even small children have a sense of morality. But what exactly does this sense of morality involve?

Jason quoted Jon Haidt in an earlier post, who suggested that a comprehensive moral psychology must study the full array of psychological mechanisms that are "active in the moral lives of people of diverse cultures.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch a talk by Jon Haidt at the Gallup Positive Psychology Summit where he gave a wonderful talk about moral foundation theory, which seeks to determine the fundamental systems of morality. I sought to use his scale in my work and using that scale eventually grew into our current collaboration (along with Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Sena Koleva) at YourMorals.org, where the main instrument used in moral foundation theory, the moral foundations questionnaire, is available.

The moral foundations questionnaire measures five foundations. The following descriptions are taken from the moral foundations theory webpage where "the theory proposes that five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of "intuitive ethics." Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too."

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment

systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious


The central finding of Moral Foundations theory to date is the split between what liberals and conservatives report caring about. Specifically, Liberals care more exclusively about issues concerning harm and fairness, while conservatives also care about issues surrounding obeying rightful authority, being loyal to one's ingroup, and avoiding "unnatural" violations of one's purity.

How can we tell if this finding is robust? All web servers keep track of referring traffic and so we can analyze the data we collect at YourMorals.org by the source of the incoming traffic. If the pattern holds among people who read the New York Times, people who come from conservative blogs (a minority, but there are some), people who read the Houston Chronicle, people who find the site by typing 'morality quiz' into a search engine, and people who read Libertarian magazines...then it is likely that the pattern is somewhat robust.

Of course, these patterns are all among internet samples, so it would be fair to say that if this pattern of liberal-conservative differences holds among all these groups, then it is fairly robust amongst the type of people who use the internet to read about news or politics.

Below are graphs containing real data, across many of these groups. You'll see the same pattern where as you move from liberal to conservative, the exclusivity of concern about issues of harm and fairness reduces.

Jason's note: as the lines move from left to right (liberal to conservative), notice that the harm and fairness constructs are rated as more important for liberals than ingroup, authority, and purity, while this separation is not observed for conservatives.

So far, we have promoted this research as a way to bridge group differences through our work at civilpolitics.org and through press and media such as the following talk. Perhaps understanding other group's morality could encourage us to villainize less those with whom we disagree.

We believe that moral foundations theory is a great start on mapping the moral realm, including conservative moral ideas that appear underrepresented in academic psychology. However, we realize that this is just a start and are actively seeking new moral systems that may be distinct (from the ones discussed above). I proposed some ideas and Jon Haidt held a competition recently to discover a sixth foundation. We'd welcome your ideas and comments. One of the wonderful things about using the internet in our research is that we end up with ideas from beyond the limited group of people in academia.

With the recent focus on "liberty" in political discourse and the rise of the tea party, one foundation which we are certain to add in the next version of moral foundations theory is the idea of freedom/liberty. We are also working to revise the fairness foundation to include conservative ideas of fairness, such as proportionality/equity (as opposed to equality/social justice). We recently submitted a paper on libertarian morality, who focus on liberty as a moral principle, and you can read more about it here.