Moral cognition: An interdisciplinary investigation of judgement versus action

Investigating the relationship between moral action and moral judgement using state-of-the-art technologies in experimental paradigms.


  • Experimental psychology
  • Moral psychology
  • Social cognitive psychology
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Behavioural neuroscience


The nature of moral action versus moral judgement has been extensively debated in numerous disciplines. Utilising various immersive state-of-the-art technologies, including Virtual Reality (VR), has allowed us to begin to examine moral actions in high emotionally arousing, direct action focused, moral scenarios. Additionally, given evidence that moral judgement and action appear distinct in individuals with certain anti-social traits such as trait psychopathy, in this project we assess pro-and anti-social personality variables. In an attempt to further understand moral judgement and moral action as independent constructs, we utilise methodologies from experimental psychology and cognitive psychology to examine the role of arousal in moral decision making.

Detailed Description

Philosophers and psychologists have sought to define and understand the mechanisms that might be underlying responses to philosophical moral dilemmas. For example, in the trolley dilemma, when faced with the task of switching a trolley’s direction to kill one worker on the track instead of five, the majority of people would agree that this is morally acceptable. However, when faced with the prospect of pushing a large person off a footbridge in order to stop the trolley from killing the five workers on the track, only the minority agree that this is morally acceptable. From a philosophical perspective, these two dilemmas are identical in their concepts; one person must be sacrificed in order to save another. However, moral psychologists have argued that certain mechanisms are driving these distinct responses. As a result, dual-process models of moral judgement have been developed and extensively discussed in the field of moral cognition.

Despite the prevalence of research examining what drives moral judgements, little research has attempted to understand moral actions in experimental settings. Are judgements and actions distinct or associated? We know from everyday life, that saying and doing are often at conflict and this concept of hypocrisy is thought to cross into the moral domain. This project aims to explore moral action as distinct from moral judgement by examining the personality traits associated with each and by utilising multidisciplinary approaches to investigate moral hypocrisy.

List of Publications

Peer reviewed journals:

Francis, K. B., Howard, C., Howard, I., Gummerum, M., Ganis, G., & Terbeck, S. (2016). Virtual morality: Transitioning from moral judgment to moral action? PLOS ONE. Available online 10/10/2016.

Francis, K. B., Terbeck, S., Gummerum, M., Ganis, G., & Howard, I. S. (Manuscript in preparation). Moral muscle: Sensorimotor personal force in virtual moral dilemmas.

Book chapters:

Terbeck, S., & Francis, K. (2017). We should if we could, but we cant. Experimental problems with moral enhancement. In: Hauskeller, M. Moral Enhancement.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Francis, K. B. (2015, October). [Review of the book Making mind: Moral sense and consciousness in philosophy, science, and literature, by G. F. Tague]. Leonardo, 48, 493-494.

Research Fellow
Kathryn B. Francis

Sylvia Terbeck, Michaela Gummerum, Giorgio Ganis, Ian Howard (Plymouth University)

Further Reading

Cushman, F. (2013). Action, outcome, and value: a dual-system framework for morality. Pers Soc Psychol Rev, 17(3), 273-292. doi: 10.1177/1088868313495594

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293(5537), 2105-2108. doi: DOI 10.1126/science.1062872

Navarrete, C. D., McDonald, M. M., Mott, M. L., & Asher, B. (2012). Virtual morality: emotion and action in a simulated three-dimensional "trolley problem". Emotion, 12(2), 364-370. doi: 10.1037/a0025561

Patil, I., Cogoni, C., Zangrando, N., Chittaro, L., & Silani, G. (2014). Affective basis of judgment-behavior discrepancy in virtual experiences of moral dilemmas. Soc Neurosci, 9(1), 94-107. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2013.870091

Skulmowski, A., Bunge, A., Kaspar, K., & Pipa, G. (2014). Forced-choice decision-making in modified trolley dilemma situations: a virtual reality and eye tracking study. Front Behav Neurosci, 8, 426. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00426