Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

January 1984


Published in Emotions, cognition, and behavior: Based, in part, on workshops sponsored by the Committee on Social and Affective Development During Childhood of the Social Science Research Council, edited by Carroll E. Izard, Jerome Kagan, and Robert B. Zajonc. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Pages 484–514. Copyright © 1984 Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.


The major aim of this chapter is to discuss a research program designed to assess emotion-cognition-behavior relationships in moral decision making. While pursuing that aim, I will discuss the relationship of that research to some of the more enduring theoretical issues in emotion.

Theories of emotion wax and wane across a more extended time frame than is typical for theoretical approaches in many other areas in psychology. Perhaps these extended cycles of emotion theory result from the relative difficulty in the recent past in doing definitive research within the area of human emotion. The field was thereby insulated from sudden shifts in focus precipitated by dramatic research relevant to basic theory.

Following an introduction of some modern theoretical issues in the area of emotion and the development of peripheral-dimensional theory and research, a brief review of literature is presented showing the impact of the intensity of emotional arousal on moral decision making. Several studies are then presented that were designed to demonstrate that one's interpretation of the meaning of emotional arousal moderates the effectiveness of the arousal in facilitating resistance to temptation. Using a paradigm in which emotional symptoms were misattributed to a placebo pill (or not, in the control group), it was shown that cheating on a vocabulary test was significantly increased by the misattribution to the pill of symptoms of peripheral arousal.

Following another brief review of related emotion-attribution research based upon hypotheses derived from a peripheral-dimensional approach to emotion, some conflicts are highlighted in what seems at first to be a smooth progression of support for the peripheral-dimensional approach.

Presented next is a series of studies on self-control with children, in which the experience of emotion (feeling good or bad) was attributed to "internal" (the child's own behavior) or to "external" (others knowing about the child's behavior) causes. The attribution of emotional experience to internal causes was shown to have powerful self-control facilitating effects on difficult watching assignments in "detection-proof " situations. Those findings are discussed in relation to the larger literature on moral socialization.

A third research series is then presented that demonstrates that adult cheating rates too may be affected by giving adults different explanations of the meaning of emotional experiences in moral decision making. In the context of a reading comprehension test, when adults read that the tension experienced during temptation is a sign that one may be about to violate one's own values, they cheated less on a subsequent vocabulary test than if they had read that emotional tension during temptation is related to past (often currently irrelevant) punishment.

We concluded that, as with self-control in children, the meaning adults attribute to their emotional response (not peripheral-arousal symptoms) is crucial in self-control. This section concludes with a discussion of the interaction of moral schemas and emotion-attribution processes during moral decision making.

The role of emotion in resistance to temptation is then discussed from a developmental perspective. Explanations are advanced for how the progression from more intense emotional responses in younger children to the more symbolic and mild representations of emotional states in adults may still result in emotion-mediated self-control. Approaches to socialization that facilitate a more internal basis for conscience are discussed, and the role of inherited temperament differences in fostering internal and external emotion-attribution dispositions is discussed. Subsequently, some evidence from the research of others concerning the possible link between temperament and internality is presented and discussed.

Finally, the broad theoretical issues concerning the nature of emotion with which the chapter began are reengaged in light of the evidence from our research. The state of the evidence concerning the importance of arousal feedback from different body areas is discussed, and conclusions are discussed concerning the relative merit of dimensional and discrete approaches to emotion.