Does Direct Personal Contact Increase the Accessibility of Moral Rules? An Experiment with Children and Adolescents

Lindamulage Nivarthana De Silva, Simona Carla Silvia Caravita, Leonardo Lenzi, Mariaelena Salvaterra, Alessandro Antonietti

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


From the seminal study by Greene and colleagues (2001) the psychological and neuroscientific research tried to identify the operationalization criteria that distinguish between personal and impersonal dilemmas, which were originally proposed in philosophical research. Royzman and Baron (2002) individuated in the contact principle the main criterion are used to study cognitive and emotional processes in moral reasoning (Greene et al., 2001). These dilemmas require participants to decide whether harming or disadvantaging an innocent victim in order to benefit/save unknown persons (without benefits for the actor) is or is not acceptable. In personal dilemmas, the actor directly interacts with the victim, whereas in impersonal dilemmas the actor-victim interaction is indirect (i.e., without physical/verbal contact). FMRI scanning of brain areas showed that examining personal situations is associated with a higher activation of emotion-related brain areas, whereas examining impersonal dilemmas to higher activation of cognition-related areas (Greene et al., 2011). Personal and impersonal dilemmas were used only in one study with children and by administeringonlyonedilemmatic situation (Pellizzoni et al., 2010). In studies with adults, harming the victim has been found to be accepted to a higher degree in impersonal than personal situations (Blair, 2010). Harming/disadvantaging another person is a transgression of moral rules, i.e. the rules aimed at preserving the other’s well-being (Turiel, 1983). Research on moral knowledge provided evidence that, from early-childhood, moral rules are known as non-breakable and their transgression as non-acceptable (Killen&Smetana, 2006). Therefore, within-person variation in accepting moral rule transgressions in personal and impersonal dilemmas indicates that, beyond moral rule knowledge, other processes are involved in moral evaluations of actions. Nichols and Mallon (2006)proposed that three factors intervene: cost/benefit analysis, knowledge of moral rules and emotional activation; furthermore, personal situations may elicit higher levels of emotional activation, that prioritizes knowledge of moral rules as non-breakable on the cost/benefit analysis. We aimed at: (a) realizing an experimental test of Nichols and Mallon’s model; and (b) contributing to validating the first series of personal and impersonal dilemmas constructed for children and adolescents. Participants were 83children (fourth-graders, 59.3% boys), 72 early-adolescents (seventh-graders, 55.6% boys), and 73 adolescents (tenth-graders, 52.1% boys). Measures consisted of (i) 20 stories to assess child’s knowledge of moral rules as breakable (higher scores) or non-breakable; (ii) 8 pairs of personal and impersonal scenarios, where a child had to operate so that a harm/loss/disadvantage affected a “victim” child, in order to benefit another child (Caravita et al., 2012). Repeated-measure ANOVAs were performed: personal vs. impersonal dilemmas as within-subject factor, knowledge of moral rules as covariate. We hypothesized that the interaction of dilemma type by knowledge of moral rules would be significant. The tendency to accept harming others more in impersonal than personal situations was confirmed. Among early adolescents and adolescents, the interaction effect of dilemmas X moral rule knowledge was significant. In follow-up regressions accepting the breaking of moral rules was more strongly associated to evaluating harming others as possible in impersonal than personal dilemmas. Therefore, results of this study give some support to Nichols and Mallon’s (2006) hypothesis of a higher accessibility of moral rules as none breakable at least in early adolescents and adolescents.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNeuroetica: nascita di una disciplina dai laboratori alla vita quotidiana
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventNeuroetica: nascita di una disciplina dai laboratori alla vita quotidiana - Padova
Duration: 8 May 201310 May 2013


ConferenceNeuroetica: nascita di una disciplina dai laboratori alla vita quotidiana


  • adolescents
  • children
  • cognition
  • emotional processes
  • moral reasoning
  • personal contact


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