Hot or cold morality? (Part 1)

How do we make moral judgments?  Are people cold, calculating Vulcans? Or are they affectively hot hedonists? Researchers often present morality as a war between vying ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ processes, but in this two-part blog post I argue that the distinction is a false choice. Morality is both hot and cold, but not in the way previous research leads people to believe.

Imagine you’re walking on a footpath crossing over a pair of train tracks.  Suddenly you hear a long whistle and realize that there is an out-of-control train hurtling down the tracks.  Worse yet, down the line are five unsuspecting workmen who will be killed if the train is not stopped. 

You know (from your childhood interest in trains) that if the train hits a large weight it will engage the emergency stopping mechanism, thereby saving the otherwise-doomed workmen.  You aren’t heavy enough, but right in front of you is a very large man.  If you were to push him off the footpath and into the path of the train, his weight would engage the train’s emergency brakes thereby saving the five workmen, though the large man would be killed.  What should you do?  Kill one man to save five, or allow five men to die?

If you’re like most people, thinking about this question produces dueling reactions: On the one hand you might feel that it’s simply wrong to kill someone, even as a means to save even more lives.  On the other hand, you might do the ‘moral math’ and conclude that saving five lives at the price of one is a good trade.  The tension between these two reactions is the heart of one of the most prominent theories of moral judgment: Greene’s dual process model (Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Greene, 2013).

Greene argues that moral judgment is comprised of two competing systems: A ‘hot’ emotional system that quickly produces judgments based on ‘gut’ intuitions and a ‘cold’ cognitive system that works slowly, crunching moral data (e.g., intentions, reasons, causality, preventability) before producing a judgment. Most often, according to Greene, moral judgments are driven by the hot, emotional system.  The cold, cognitive system only comes into play when people have ample time, motivation, and cognitive resources.

Morality in vivo?

But is this really the way people make moral judgments in everyday life?  The answer to this question depends on two critical distinctions: (1) who is the victim; (2) how do we cash out the dual process (are the emotional and cognitive processes independent of each other or do they interact).  In this blog I will focus on the first distinction; my next blog will focus on the second.

In some cases, like when we (or someone we care about) are moral victims, it certainly seems that emotion does most of the moral work.  We can all probably recall feelings of white-hot anger, followed by moral outrage when we’ve been maligned.  In other cases, however, emotions seem to take a back seat to cognitive data crunching.  For example, when considering who (if anyone) deserves blame for the fatal crash of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, people want to know about what caused the crash (human error or mechanical problems); were problems foreseeable and preventable; and blame is a function of the answers to these questions.

Why the difference?  Certainly it would seem that the morality that is good for the goose is also good for the gander.  Nevertheless, thinking about one’s reaction to being cut off on the highway feels importantly different from the reaction to a stranger being cut off on the highway.  This difference may be explained by differences in people’s emotional reactions and by the different purposes first person (where the self is the victim) and third person (where a stranger is the victim) serve.

Morality mine

In a previous post, I argued that moral judgment functions as a tool to manage the behavior of others.  People blame others in part to teach how to behave (or what behaviors they should avoid).  First-person blame certainly serves this function; people want to deter harm and incentivize help.  However, it may also function to protect one’s self-image, including preserving status, and managing reputation (Fast & Tiedens, 2010; Sedikides & Alicke, 2012).  Additionally, people’s have markedly stronger emotional reactions to self vs. other victimization (e.g., more personal vs. empathetic anger) (Batson et al., 2007).

Because of these two differences, first-person moral judgments may be driven by a ‘hot’ process.  The proverbial fire is started by people’s strong emotional reactions to being wronged, and the motivation to defend the self from threat stokes and maintains the fires.  Cooler processes such as the motivation to produce calibrated, socially acceptable judgments may also come into play; however, like the moral math in the runaway train case above, these processes emerge slowly and may not be able to overcome initial gut reactions.

Social morality

In contrast to the hot, self-oriented process of morality for first-person judgments, third-person moral judgments appear to be focused on explaining events and maintaining social order.   Blame plays the role of a social police force that fosters group cohesion and performance (Cushman & Macindoe, 2009).  Blaming in this manner is rooted in shared social-cultural values and requirements for moral warrant (See this for a more in-depth discussion of third-person moral judgments). People calibrate judgments of blame based on evidential factors such as the amount of harm inflicted, intentionality, preventability and agents’ reasons for acting (Malle, Guglielmo, & Monroe, 2014), and outside of judging people’s reactions to misbehaving trains, there is surprisingly little data backing the claim that people’s emotional reactions to misdeeds drive moral judgments.

Third-person moral judgments appear to be largely explained by people’s attention to moral evidence. Hot processes, such as disgust, may exacerbate judgments of blame, but they leave the underlying cold, cognitive process intact.

Claiming that morality is hot or cold requires some additional conceptual distinctions. In some cases (i.e., first-person morality) the process appears to be very hot, with cold cognition attempting to catch up to the speedy emotional intuitions.  However, in other case (i.e., third-person morality) the process appears very cool indeed, though emotion can ramp up overall blame.

In my next post I will explore two ways of cashing out the hot-cold dual process claim: as two independent tracks, or as interdependent processes.     


Batson, C. D., Kennedy, C. L., Nord, L.-A., Stocks, E. L., Fleming, D. A., Marzette, C. M., Lishner, D. A., et al. (2007). Anger at unfairness: is it moral outrage? European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 1272–1285.

Cushman, F. A., & Macindoe, O. (2009). The coevolution of punishment and prosociality among learning agents. Proceedings of the 31st annual conference of the cognitive science society.

Fast, N. J., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2010). Blame contagion: The automatic transmission of self-serving attributions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 97–106.

Greene, J. (2013). Moral tribes: Emotion, reason, and the gap between us and them. New York: Penguin Press HC, The.

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, 2105–2108.

Malle, B. F., Guglielmo, S., & Monroe, A. E. (2014). A theory of blame. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 147–186.

Sedikides, C., & Alicke, M. D. (2012). Self-enhancement and self-protection motives. Oxford handbook of motivation, 303–322.

Young, L., & Tsoi, L. (2013). When mental states matter, when they don’t, and what that means for morality. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 585–604.