Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Jim Olson and Dr. Bertram Gawronski


A growing body of work has examined responses to moral dilemmas where causing some degree of harm leads to a greater positive outcome; such dilemmas are said to pit deontological philosophical considerations (causing harm is never acceptable) against utilitarian philosophical considerations (causing harm is acceptable if it leads to the best possible outcome). According to dual-process theories of moral judgment, independent processes drive each judgment: affective reactions to harm drive deontological judgments, whereas cognitive evaluations of outcomes drive utilitarian judgments. Yet, theoretically both processes contribute to each judgment; therefore, it is an error to equate judgments with processes. To overcome this error, we adapted Jacoby’s (1991) process dissociation (PD) procedure to independently quantify the strength of deontological and utilitarian inclinations within individuals. Five studies presented in two articles support the conclusion that process dissociation taps the processes theorized to underlie moral judgments more effectively than overt dilemma judgments, and allows for increased insight into the nature of moral processing. In Conway and Gawronski (2013) Study 1, the PD parameters predicted theoretically relevant individual-difference variables (e.g., the utilitarian parameter uniquely predicted cognitive load, whereas the deontology parameter uniquely predicted empathic concern and perspective-taking). Moreover, both parameters predicted moral identity—a relation that was obscured using overt moral judgments. In Study 2, a cognitive load manipulation selectively reduced utilitarian inclinations, whereas in Study 3, a manipulation that increased the vividness of harm selectively increased the deontology parameter. Together, these findings suggest that the deontology parameter is tapping affective reactions to harm, and the utilitarian parameter is tapping cognitive evaluations of outcomes (consistent with theory). In Study 1 of Conway, Bartels, and Pizarro (under review), participants scoring higher in Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and meaninglessness made more overt utilitarian judgments (replicating past findings), but process dissociation revealed that this relation was due to decreased deontology rather than increased utilitarianism among people high in antisocial personality traits. Study 2 demonstrated that the deontology and utilitarian parameters each correlated with different kinds of prosociality. These findings clarify theoretical confusion regarding the nature of utilitarianism and deontology.