Moral kinematics: The role of physical factors in moral judgments

Rumen I. Iliev, Sonya Sachdeva, Douglas L. Medin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Harmful events often have a strong physical component-for instance, car accidents, plane crashes, fist fights, and military interventions. Yet there has been very little systematic work on the degree to which physical factors influence our moral judgments about harm. Since physical factors are related to our perception of causality, they should also influence our subsequent moral judgments. In three experiments, we tested this prediction, focusing in particular on the roles of motion and contact. In Experiment 1, we used abstract video stimuli and found that intervening on a harmful object was judged as being less bad than intervening directly on the victim, and that setting an object in motion was judged as being worse than redirecting an already moving object. Experiment 2 showed that participants were sensitive not only to the presence or absence of motion and contact, but also to the magnitudes and frequencies associated with these dimensions. Experiment 3 extended the findings from Experiment 1 to verbally presented moral dilemmas. These results suggest that domain-general processes play a larger role in moral cognition than is currently assumed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1387-1401
Number of pages15
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Agency
  • Causality
  • Moral judgments
  • Motion
  • Physical factors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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