Macquarie University
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Making moral decisions ;: examining the interplay of controlled cognition and automatic intuitions during the resolution of moral dilemmas

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posted on 2022-03-28, 11:39 authored by Samantha Parker
Recent evidence investigating moral psychology has suggested that moral decisions result from the interplay of two distinct and separable processes: one fast, automatic and affective, the other slow, effortful and abstract. Central to this dual-process theory are assumptions about when and how each mechanism emerges, interacts and is reconciled. It is largely assumed, for example, that decision-making is driven by fast, automatic intuitions that can be overcome by slower, more deliberative thought. While there is now a substantial body of research supporting the distinction between two systems during moral reasoning, little is known about the interaction between the systems. This thesis investigated when and how controlled cognition and automatic intuitions contributed to the production of moral judgements using the reach-to-touch paradigm. In two separate experiments participants were presented with moral dilemmas that differed according to the doctrine of double effect. Participants were shown two response options to the question “What would you do?” with one characteristically utilitarian and the other deontological. Participants indicated their response by reaching to the right or left of a central start position. A Polhemus Liberty motion capture system rapidly sampled the position of the participant’s hand throughout the movement. Experiment 1 required participants to make decisions about moral dilemmas alone. In Experiment 2, a cognitive load manipulation was introduced. Results provide temporal support for the dual process theory. At an early stage in processing deontological responses to high conflict dilemmas were comparatively more rapid than utilitarian decisions. In an extension of previous research results revealed utilitarian preferences to be, rather than slow and more taxing, variable on a trial-by-trial basis. Together, these findings suggest that cognitive resources mediate the interaction between intuition and cognition.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. Experiment 1 -- 3. Experimant 2 -- 4. General discussion.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 108-122

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes


MRes, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Cognitive Science

Department, Centre or School

Department of Cognitive Science

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Matthew Finkbeiner


Copyright Samantha Parker 2015. Copyright disclaimer:




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