The Psychological and Social Factors that Influence Moral Transference

Katherine O'Lone

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Research has revealed that our moral dispositions and preferences are dynamic, not static. Our previous decisions, as well as the decisions of others like us, influence our subsequent moral activities. For example, the performance or recollection of past transgressions often compels us to compensate by engaging in good deeds, i.e., moral “cleansing”. On the other hand, after performing or recalling our own good deeds – or those of in-group members – we may feel “licensed” to act immorally. These two separate but complimentary mechanisms (i.e., moral licensing and cleansing) form a model of moral behaviour termed moral compensation. The Moral compensation model allows us to entertain a “debits and credits” conceptualisation of moral behaviour but it cannot adequately account for the flexibility of our day-to-day moral behaviour. The purpose of this thesis is to investigate instances of moral transference, i.e., episodes where past (im)moral behaviour is displaced into the present, where past in-group behaviour is displaced onto us, and where moral imperatives are displaced onto other (e.g., supernatural) agents.
The methods used in this research are varied and include self-report, memory recall, implicit association testing and perceptual judgement. Using a novel confession paradigm, Chapter 3 explores whether the performance of a false confession can alleviate guilt for an unrelated past transgression. Chapter 4 investigates whether the recollection of a past unethical behaviour can trigger increased sensitivity to cues of social surveillance. Chapter 5 probes the effect of surveillance cues on confessional behaviour and seeks to discover whether such cues trigger voluntary confession as a means of mitigating possible punishment. Chapter 6 considers the role of forgiving God concepts on people’s endorsement of state-sanctioned punishment, in particular whether such concepts restrict the tendency for individuals to “outsource” the responsibility of punishment to God. Chapter 7 explores whether information about ingroup (im)morality triggers vicarious moral compensation effects.
This thesis concludes that – contra the moral compensation model – our everyday moral behaviours are influenced by more than a process of moral self-regulation. I further conclude that religious affiliation and beliefs are important factors influencing the mechanism of moral transference.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • McKay, Ryan, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Feb 2019
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018


  • Religious priming
  • social cognition
  • moral psychology
  • cognitive science of religion
  • supernatural agent beliefs

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