Moral foundations theory splits morality into six categories. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt mentioned that looking at church sermons of southern baptist vs less conservative christian Church sermons showed strong moral splits into "Conservative" and "Liberal" mindsets, defined by subsets of the six foundations, in particular those that triggered more often in the texts. Specifically, this was done using a predefined list such as this one and then doing a word count for each category, thereby binning the sermon into one of the two mindsets. Lets call such words "trigger words."

My question is the following: has there been any work done on looking at combinations of these trigger words from different categories? Let me be more specific. Lets take the sentence:

"Hurting a dog is one of the worst things a person can do."

One such trigger word here is "hurting" which is a vice of the Care foundation. This is something that appeals to the Care foundation and will, statistically speaking, be highly agreed with by the Liberal mindset. Also there will generally be less agreement with this from the Conservative mindset. Now, what if we write the sentence as:

"We must respect dogs."

Here, "respect" is a trigger word for the Conservative mindset. Moreover, consider the sentence:

"Hurting dogs is one of the worst things a person can do. We must respect all animals and those who harm them are evil, wicked and sick."

I've purposely overloaded the last sentence with Sanctity and Respect trigger words.

Question 1: If one overloads sentences as done above, will it trigger more positive reactions from the Conservative mindset?

Question 2: When asked to explain the above overloaded sentences, will both Liberal and Conservative mindsets agree on a similar meaning ("don't hurt dogs")?

Question 3: In other words, is there evidence for the ability to trigger low-priority foundations by invoking high-priority ones for a given mindset? I'm am relying here on the notion that words are generally ambiguous and context-dependent. As well, I am assuming reactions and parsing of meaning is instantaneous and the subject is not given time to reflect and analyze, i.e. intuition.

I'm grossly oversimplifying things here but I hope the general theme of these questions will lead to a nice discussion.

  • $\begingroup$ Hey Alex R.! I recognize you from Math.SE. :) Unfortunately, this question may not fall in line with CogSci.SE regulations, as it seems a bit vague for this forum. CogSci.SE is primarily research-based and generally leans away from hypotheticals, discussions, or opinion-based arguments. Since you seem to be asking for those things in your answer, you may have a better time on Philosophy.SE. Alternatively, you could rephrase the question to be more specific -- i.e., "what is the relationship between political leaning and semantic interpretation of XYZ?" $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2015 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ @SydneyMaples: Thanks for the advice! I was cut between posting this on Philosophy mainly because I was hoping that by now this question has been studied academically in social psychology. I'm not intimately familiar with this area but mainly I'm hoping that a recent study has considered these questions (I listed a few for better luck). In particular, perhaps this was studied on www.YourMorals.com? I'll try to edit for more directness. $\endgroup$
    – Alex R.
    Aug 12, 2015 at 1:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It might be helpful to specify one main question, since you seem to ask a few of them in your post. Also, since this is a specific theory rather than a broad psychological phenomenon that you are inquiring about, there is a reduced chance that it has been studied academically in social psychology outside of the original theorist. That's why it might be more helpful to ask a more specific question about an overlying phenomenon, rather than asking for material that stems directly from this theory. Really cool question though -- it gets me thinking. :) $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2015 at 4:06
  • $\begingroup$ This is a great question, very focused, detailed and educational. Well done, Alex. I am not sure if @SydneyMaples is talking about a previous draft, but this question seems completely on topic for me. The moral foundation theory is a pretty popular topic in social psychology, so there are many more researchers than just Haidt looking at it. My only advice is that people are probably dissuaded by the length, it might be better to move the first paragraph after the main question into a "Background" section; or at least add some section headings. $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2015 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ I also think you ask a very focused question when you write: "has there been any work done on looking at combinations of these trigger words from different categories [for the same query]?". You should emphasize this and de-emphasize the three "questions" lower down. Those are more examples of what you might expect such further work to look like. $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2015 at 22:36

1 Answer 1


I am a research psychologist working with moral foundations theory and messaging and I haven't seen these particular questions addressed. But you maybe interested to see work that uses different framed messages with these 'trigger words' in different populations (e.g., by political orientation) and measures outcomes, e.g.,

The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes - Feinberg & Willer journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797612449177


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