Running head: ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 1
The Role of Elevation in Moral Judgment
University of Melbourne
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Lewis-Clark State College
[THIS STUDY HAS BEEN ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION AT THE JOURNAL OF
Manuscript Keywords: elevation, disgust, moral judgment, moral emotions
Christoph Klebl, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne,
email@example.com; Isabel Dziobek, Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-
Universität zu Berlin, firstname.lastname@example.org; Rhett Diessner, Psychology Department,
Lewis-Clark State College, email@example.com.
Corresponding author: Christoph Klebl, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences,
University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia; firstname.lastname@example.org
Author Disclosure Statement: No competing financial interests exist for any of the
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 2
Elevation is the emotion elicited by witnessing acts of moral beauty and may be framed as the
opposite of disgust. Two studies investigated the role of elevation in moral judgment and its
relation to disgust. In Study 1 it was investigated whether elevation can attenuate the effects of
disgust on moral transgression judgments. Participants were either induced to experience disgust
(by giving them a bitter beverage), or to experience disgust and elevation simultaneously (by
video induction). No effects of either emotion on moral transgression judgments were found. In
Study 2 the nature of causal connectedness between elevation and moral virtue judgments was
investigated by testing whether elevation amplifies moral virtue judgments. It was found that
participants judged morally good acts as being more morally good when being elevated,
suggesting that there is a bidirectional causal link between elevation and judgments of moral
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 3
The Role of Elevation in Moral Judgment
How people arrive at the judgment of what is morally good or bad has been an ancient and
perennial question for philosophers and a modern question for psychologists. The main traditions
in Western philosophy emphasized rationality and reason, while they regarded emotions as
having an inferior influence on judgment, or even as being erroneous judgments and a hindrance
to reason for arriving at the optimal judgment (Reeve, 1992).
A radical break with the primacy of reason was made by David Hume who advocated
sentimentalism, the view that moral judgments are based on feelings that cause approval or
disapproval of an act. He claimed that reason ‘is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions
and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’ (Hume, 1739/1969, p.
Psychological Approaches to Moral Judgment
The bias toward rationalist approaches to moral judgment is found in the most influential
psychological theories of the 20th Century. Most importantly, Kohlberg (1973) developed a
theory of moral reasoning development based on Piaget's (1932/1965) theory of cognitive
development. He argued that moral reasoning develops in six stages of increasingly complex
structural thought concerning moral judgment. However, as evidence emerged suggesting that
unintentional and automatic processes underlie most judgments (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999) and
that reasoning might be a post hoc process in moral judgment (Kunda, 1990; Nisbett &
Schachter, 1966), emotions are being seen as having a greater role in judgment.
Based on these findings, Jonathan Haidt (2001) proposed a social intuitionist approach to
moral judgment, according to which moral judgment is caused by fast, effortless, automatic,
unconscious evaluations (intuitions). Whereas moral reasoning is a slow, effortful, and motivated
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 4
process that typically searches for arguments to support the intuitive judgment, and thus allows
one to make the judgment verbally accessible and then to justify it to others. Thus, many moral
judgments may be caused by moral intuitions, whereas moral reasoning is assumed to often be a
post hoc process. Furthermore, although intuitions are not necessarily emotions, most moral
intuitions may be derived from emotional or affective states (Greene, 2014).
There are numerous studies suggesting that emotionally-driven intuitions are crucial to
moral judgment. For example, Moll, Eslinger, and Oliveira-Souza (2001) found that participants
who silently judged sentences having moral content (e.g. ‘the boy stole his mother's savings’)
compared to judging sentences that had no moral content (e.g. ‘stones are made of water’)
showed greater activation in brain regions associated with emotional processing.
Disgust and Elevation as Moral Emotions
Emotions are typically described and distinguished by their eliciting events, cognitive
appraisals, physiological changes, facial expressions, action tendencies, and subjective feelings.
Moral emotions are differentiated from other emotions by their disinterested elicitors that are not
required to be related to the self (Haidt, 2003b). For example, one might feel disgusted by
hearing about the sexual fetish of another person or feel compassion when reading about the
suffering of people in a war-torn country. In addition, moral emotions tend to involve prosocial
action tendencies (Haidt, 2003b). For example, elevation has been shown to increase
volunteering, donation behavior, cooperative behavior, and reduce prejudice (Pohling &
Elicitors and components. The emotion disgust has a distinct physiological, behavioral,
and motivational pattern that is common to all forms of disgust: it manifests as motivation to
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 5
distance oneself from the eliciting object or event, an experience of revulsion and nausea, a
distinctive facial expression, and a parasympathetic response (Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 1999).
The form of disgust most relevant to this study is sociomoral disgust, which is caused by
violations of moral norms, and particularly by violations of purity norms such as taking drugs or
being sexually promiscuous (Horberg, Oveis, Keltner, & Cohen, 2009). Moral disgust has the
function to make people act in accordance with what is perceived to be the natural order and
protect the sanctity of the soul. Similar to having contact with an infected person, people avoid
contact with somebody who has committed moral offences (Rozin, Markwith, & McCauley,
Relationship between disgust and moral judgment. Studies suggest that disgust and
judgments of moral norm violations are bidirectionally causally connected to disgust. Firstly, it
has been shown that moral norm violations, particularly purity norm violations, elicit disgust. For
example, Horberg et al. (2009) asked participants to judge two purity-violation vignettes (e.g.
sexual intercourse with a dead chicken) and two justice-violation vignettes (e.g. not returning a
textbook to the library), and to indicate their emotional experience as a response to the vignettes.
They found that feelings of disgust predicted harsher judgment of the purity norm transgressions
but not of the justice violations.
Secondly, disgust has been found to render judgments of moral transgressions more severe
(cf. Pizarro, Inbar, & Helion, 2011). Wheatley and Haidt (2005), in a seminal study, showed that
experiencing disgust makes participants judge moral violations more harshly. Participants were
given a posthypnotic suggestion instructing them to feel disgust when reading a particular word.
The authors found that participants judged moral transgressions more severely when the disgust-
inducing word was embedded within the vignette describing the transgression.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 6
Schnall, Haidt, Clore, and Jordan (2008) completed four studies in which they investigated
whether physical disgust biases the judgment of moral norm violations. In order to induce
disgust, they exposed participants to a bad smell using fart spray, setting up the experimental
room to look disgusting, asked participants to recall a disgusting experience, or showed them a
disgusting video. They found that disgust but not sadness renders the judgment of moral
transgressions more severe. Moreover, Eskine, Kacinik, and Prinz (2011) found that gustatory
disgust elicited by the consumption of a bitter beverage, causes more severe judgments of moral
Elicitors and components. Haidt (2003a) has theorized that there are three dimensions
of social cognition: solidarity, hierarchy, and most importantly to our purposes here, ‘purity
versus pollution’ or ‘elevation versus degradation’. Haidt (2003a) explained that people vary in
this dimension as a trait – priests may be high on this dimension whereas criminals may be low -,
and as a state – one may be higher on the purity direction after meditating and lower after taking
illicit drugs or having degrading sex. It regulates social interactions and secures social order by
influencing people to strive for purity and avoid impure people and behaviors.
Haidt (2003a) proposed that the emotional response to the lower end of the dimension is
disgust which leads to distancing oneself from the eliciting person or scene, whereas the
corresponding emotion that is elicited when one witnesses a person being or acting on the upper
end of the dimension, or moving up on the dimension, is elevation. Therefore, elicitors of
elevation are virtuous acts, i.e., acts of moral beauty, that inspire people to desire to become a
better person and to commit prosocial actions (cf. Pohling & Diessner, 2016). Haidt, Algoe,
Meijer, Tam, and Chandler (2002) reported that elevation opens oneself up to and turns attention
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 7
toward other people. Furthermore, Algoe and Haidt (2009) investigated in three studies the
features of elevation using recall, video induction, and diary methods. They found that elevation
is significantly more associated with the motivation to enhance the other person's reputation, to
help other people, and to emulate the person who behaved virtuously, compared to admiration,
gratitude, and joy, and that elevated people had significantly stronger physical sensations of
warm feelings in the chest and muscle relaxation than people who experienced admiration or
Schnall, Roper, and Fessler (2010) investigated how elevation affects helping behavior.
They found that participants who experienced elevation were more likely to volunteer for an
additional unpaid task subsequent to the actual experiment and spent twice as long filling out a
boring questionnaire voluntarily.
Relationship between elevation and moral judgment. There appears to be only one
published study that has dealt with elevation and moral judgment. That study compared the
differential effects of mirth and elevation on judging the permissiveness of deontological
violations (using footbridge problems; Strohminger, Lewis, & Meyer, 2011). It was found that
mirth increased permissiveness judgments, whereas elevation lessened permissiveness
judgments, which can be explained by elevation being associated with moral reverence, as well
as with affiliation and empathy.
We believe, however, that those psychological processes may lead to different judgments
in footbridge dilemmas compared to moral transgression judgments. Whereas the former focus
on the act itself and may involve empathy with a potential victim (i.e., a man who has to be
pushed down a footbridge), moral transgression judgments focus on the transgressor and involve
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 8
actively condemning the offender in which case affiliation and empathy for the transgressor may
lower the severity of moral condemnations.
Moreover, elevation might oppose the effects of disgust on moral transgression judgments,
because as Haidt (2003a) argued, elevation and disgust may be emotions associated with
opposite ends of one social cognition dimension and have features that are diametrically
opposed: elevation causes a warm glow in the chest, makes one feel lifted up, and motivates
approach behavior, whereas disgust causes nausea, makes one feel dragged down, and motivates
avoidance behavior (Haidt, 2003a).
Recent criticism by Zagzebski (2017) and Kristjánsson (2017). The elevation concept
was recently criticized by the philosophical work of Zagzebski (2017). Firstly, the author
proposed that elevation can be equated with the emotion admiration which is the foundation of
her exemplarist moral theory. She argues that the emotional response to acquired human
excellence is admiration both for non-moral and moral excellence. Although we acknowledge
that admiration and elevation are similar emotions, we adopt the elevation concept because moral
and non-moral excellence are associated with different physiological and motivational
experiences. For example, moral excellence elicits prosocial and affiliate behavior, whereas non-
moral excellence is associated with the experience of high energy and motivates self-
improvement (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Silvers & Haidt, 2008).
Secondly, Zagzebski (2017) claims that contempt but not disgust is the opposite of
elevation (or admiration according to her definition). This, however, ignores that whereas
according to our knowledge there is no research suggesting that contempt might be the opposite
of elevation, there are numerous studies showing that disgust is linked to moral transgressions
(e.g. Wheatley & Haidt, 2005), and the components of disgust are opposite to those of elevation
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 9
(see above). Furthermore, Hutcherson and Gross (2011) found that in response to immoral
behavior participants felt most strongly disgust, whereas the strongest response to incompetent
behavior was contempt.
Furthermore, the elevation concept was criticized by Kristjánsson (2017) who argued that
elevation as described by Haidt (2003a) is actually two distinct emotions: one is identical to
admiration for moral excellence as proposed by Zagzebski (2017), and the other one is an
emotion elicited by the appreciation of transpersonal moral ideals and can be understood as
moral awe (assuming that awe is an emotion elicited by transpersonal stimuli such as
overpowering truth or great works of art).
We argue that elevation and awe are two separate emotions because awe differs from
elevation by its stimulus features: A stimulus eliciting awe has the features perceptual vastness,
that is, it is experienced as being much larger than the self, and need for accommodation, that is,
it challenges the mental structures to make sense of it (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). The differences
in the stimuli features are reflected by the difference in the physiological and motivational
components of awe and elevation: Awe creates a feeling of self-diminishment, whereas elevation
can lead to affiliative behavior (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007). Thus, hearing about the
deeds of Gandhi might elicit awe, whereas witnessing somebody sharing their food with a
homeless person might elicit elevation.
Aims of the Present Studies
Although empirical research on elevation has only begun relatively recently, there is a
growing body of literature examining this moral emotion (Pohling & Diessner, 2016; Thomson
& Siegel, 2017). Studies have investigated elicitors and features of elevation (e.g. Algoe &
Haidt, 2009; Thomson & Siegel, 2013), the effects of elevation on social cognition and behavior,
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 10
particularly on prosocial behavior, (e.g. Lai, Haidt, & Nosek, 2014; Schnall et al., 2010), and
brain activity associated with elevation (e.g. Piper, 2013; Piper, Saslow, & Saturn, 2015).
However, no published study has examined whether elevation can counteract the effects of
disgust on the judgment of moral transgressions (cf. Schnall, Haidt, et al., 2008), that is, whether
it attenuates the amplification of moral transgression judgments caused by disgust. Study 1
below attempts to do so. As outlined above, disgust and elevation have opposite emotional
patterns and thus, might have opposing effects on the judgment of moral transgressions.
Likewise, no published study has investigated whether elevation amplifies the judgment
of moral virtues, that is, whether it makes people judge morally good acts as more morally good.
This hypothesis is based on Horberg, Oveis, and Keltner's (2011) appraisal tendency approach
which proposes that emotions amplify moral judgments depending on their respective core
appraisals. They theorize that the cognitive appraisals associated with experiencing a certain
emotion persist throughout the experience of that emotion, and that these appraisal tendencies
bias subsequent moral judgment by amplifying the importance of sociomoral concerns that are
semantically related to the appraisals. For example, disgust may amplify the importance of
sociomoral concerns regarding the body's and the mind's purity. This may lead people to judge
the violation of purity norms more severely (Schnall, Haidt, et al., 2008) and produces a
cleansing impulse (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008). Similarly, elevation might amplify
sociomoral concerns regarding others' virtues (Horberg et al., 2011) that then biases the judgment
of unrelated morally virtuous acts, causing them to be judged more morally good. Study 2 below
addresses this hypothesis.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 11
Participants. An initial sample of 64 adults were recruited. Seventeen participants were
tested at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and recruited via an online recruiting system of the
Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and 47 participants were
tested at University College London and recruited via the SONA UCL Psychology Subject Pool
and personal contact. Participation was voluntary, and participants received monetary
compensation, and had the chance to win Amazon gift vouchers. The data of two participants
were accidentally not saved, one participant was excluded because of not meeting the age
requirements, and nine participants were excluded because they guessed the experimental
paradigm correctly. Thus, 52 participants (37 female; mean age = 23.73, SD = 3.68, range = 19-
35) were included in the analysis. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three
conditions: (a) the control, (b) disgust, or (c) elevation and disgust condition. Twenty were in the
control condition, 15 were in the disgust condition, and 17 were in the disgust and elevation
Materials and procedure. The experiment was created and conducted via Gorilla.sc
(www.gorilla.sc/about) and took 15-20 minutes for each participant to complete. Participants had
been told that the study was on the influence of aesthetic appreciation on personality, and that
they would have to watch a video and answer a few questionnaires. Moreover, they were
instructed to watch the video attentively and answer the questions intuitively.
Participants provided their demographic data and were asked to indicate their political
orientation on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (very conservative) to 7 (very liberal), and their
religiousness on a Likert scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely). Political orientation was
included in order to test the effects of political orientation on moral transgressions judgments and
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 12
to control for its effects on the relationship between feelings of disgust and the judgment of
moral transgressions. It has been found that people with conservative political views have a
greater disgust sensitivity (Inbar, Pizarro, Iyer, & Haidt, 2012), and judge purity transgressions
more harshly (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Haidt, & Hersh, 2001). Further, religiousness was
included in order to exploratively investigate whether religiousness has an effect on the judgment
of moral transgressions independently of political orientation. In the
control condition and disgust condition, participants were presented with the first three minutes
of the documentary ‘Deepest Part of The Oceans’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=2lNCj1_zZTk) about the exploration of the Mariana Trench. Participants in the elevation and
disgust condition, however, were shown an elevation inducing Thai commercial
(https://vimeo.com/215098069) in which a poor child gets caught stealing medicine for his
mother, but a shopkeeper comes to his defense and pays for the medicine.
After watching the video,
participants rated how elevated they felt, using a short questionnaire created by Schnall et al.
(2010). They were asked to indicate on a Likert scale from 1 (not at all) to 9 (very strongly) how
much they felt ‘moved’, ‘uplifted’, ‘optimistic about humanity’, ‘a warm feeling in the chest’,
and ‘want to become a better person’. The item ‘I want to help others’ was not used in the
present study because it refers to morally good behavior and therefore, could have biased the
participants' ratings on the moral vignettes. Participants in the control condition were
then given a shot glass with a tablespoon of water in it, whereas participants in the disgust, and
the disgust and elevation conditions were given a tablespoon in a shot glass of a non-alcoholic
Swedish Bitters which is a bitter tasting herbal beverage that was previously shown to induce
disgust (cf. Eskine et al., 2011). Participants were instructed to drink it in a single swift motion.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 13
After drinking the beverage, participants were asked to rate
three distractor items that were unrelated to the actual purpose of the experiment, and then rated
seven vignettes describing moral transgressions that were taken from Schnall, Haidt, et al.
(2008). Three vignettes described unusual scenarios (e.g. someone eating his own dog that was
killed in a car accident) that we included because we suggested them to be most strongly
associated with disgust which would facilitate examining the interaction effect between disgust
and elevation. Furthermore, we used four vignettes describing everyday scenarios (e.g. keeping
money one has found on the streets) in order to keep the measure ecologically valid. The
vignettes were rated on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (perfectly OK) to 9 (extremely wrong) how
immoral they find the behaviors portrayed in the vignettes, relying on their gut instinct.
Participants were given a second dose of their respective beverage after the third vignette, as was
done in Eskine et al. (2011) to keep the level of disgust operative.
In order to test exploratively whether moral virtue judgments differ between the
conditions, participants were asked to rate six vignettes describing moral virtues. The vignettes,
however, were primarily created for Study 2 to investigate the effects of elevation on moral
virtue judgments. For this purpose, eighteen short vignettes describing moral virtues had been
tested in a pilot study and those six vignettes were chosen that showed the highest variance and
did not exhibit ceiling effects. The vignettes ranged from describing someone giving change to a
homeless person, to refusing to cheat on an exam (vignettes adapted from Horberg et al., 2009
and Blumenthal, 2005). Participants were instructed to rate on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (not
at all morally good) to 9 (extremely morally good) how morally good or right the behaviors
were, going with their gut feelings.
Finally, participants indicated on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 14
(extremely) how disgusted they were feeling at present and how disgusting they found the
beverage. Moreover, they were asked whether they watched the video clip entirely, whether they
stopped paying attention to the video, and what they guessed was being tested in the experiment.
Manipulation checks. A one-way ANOVA, comparing self-reported elevation among the
control, disgust, and disgust and elevation conditions, revealed a significant effect, F(2, 49) =
8.47, p = .001, np2 = 0.26 (large effect size; see Figure 1). Elevation was assessed using a
composite score with each item being equally weighed. The reliability of this self-reported
elevation scale was found to be highly reliable (5 items; = .82). Post hoc analyses showed that
elevation was significantly higher in the disgust and elevation condition (M = 6.49, SD = 1.38),
than in the control condition (M = 5.32, SD = 1.43), t(35) = 2.52, p = .016, d = .83 (large effect
size) and in the disgust condition (M = 4.47, SD = 1.39), t(30) = 4.13, p < .001, d = 1.45 (large
effect size). A one-way ANOVA, comparing ratings of how disgusting participants experienced
the beverage to be among conditions, showed a significant effect, F(2, 49) = 28.23, p < .001, np2
= 0.54 (large effect size; see Figure 2). Post hoc analyses revealed that participants perceived the
beverage significantly more disgusting in the disgust condition (M = 5.47, SD = 2.13) compared
to the control condition (M = 1.95, SD = 1.64), t(33) = 5.52, p < .001, d = 1.85 (large effect size)
or the disgust and elevation condition (M = 5.71, SD = 1.31) compared to the control condition,
t(35) = 7.60, p < .001, d = 2.53 (large effect size). Furthermore, the degree of disgust participants
reported to experience at the end of the experiment, varied significantly as a function of the
conditions, F(2, 49) = 7.02, p < .001, np2 = .22 (medium effect size). Post hoc comparisons
showed that feelings of disgust were significantly lower in the control condition (M = 2.40, SD =
1.50), than in the disgust condition (M = 4.40, SD = 1.99), t(33) = - 3.39, p = .002, d = -1.13
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 15
(large effect size) and in the disgust and elevation condition (M = 4.06, SD = 1.71), t(35) = -
3.14, p = .003, d = -1.03 (large effect size).
Moral judgments. The main hypothesis, that disgust renders judgment of moral
transgressions more severe and that this effect is attenuated by elevation, was tested using a
one-way ANOVA. Comparing the control (M = 6.69, SD = 1.62), disgust (M = 7.20, SD =
0.99), and disgust and elevation (M = 6.64, SD = 1.04) conditions revealed no significant effect
on moral transgression judgments, F(2, 49) = 0.92, p = .40, np2 = 0.036 (small effect size; see
Figure 3). One-way ANOVA's comparing differences in demographic variables among
conditions, showed no significant differences in gender, F(2, 49) = 2.60, p = .084, age, F(2, 49)
= 1.89, p = .16, political orientation, F(2, 49) = 0.39, p = .68, and religiousness, F(2, 49) =
1.18, p = .32. As expected, political orientation (M = 4.88, SD = 1.42) was positively correlated
with the judgment of moral transgressions, Pearson's r(52) = .30, p =.03. Moreover,
religiousness was positively correlated with moral transgression judgments, Pearson's r(52) = .
28, p =.05. However, when controlling for political orientation, the partial correlation between
religiousness and moral transgressions was not significant, r(49) = .16, p = .26.
Study 1 investigated whether elevation can counteract the effects of disgust on moral
transgression judgments, aiming to test Haidt (2003a)'s claim that disgust and elevation are
opposite emotions. We hypothesized that disgust renders moral transgression judgments more
severe (replication of Eskine et al., 2011), and that this effect would be attenuated by elevation.
Participants were significantly more disgusted in the disgust, and disgust and elevation,
conditions in which the bitter beverage was administered, compared to the control condition,
both in how disgusting they found the beverage and in their self-reported disgust at the end of
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 16
the experiment. Moreover, participants who were watching the elevation inducing video
reported experiencing more elevation than participants in the disgust or control conditions.
However, no difference in the judgment of moral transgressions was found among the
control, disgust, and disgust and elevation conditions. Thus, Eskine et al.'s (2011) finding that
gustatory distaste renders moral transgression judgments more severe, was not replicated.
Because of this, the main hypothesis that feelings of elevation attenuate the effects of disgust
on moral transgression judgments, could not be tested.
As predicted, political conservatism and religiousness were positively correlated with
the severity of moral transgression judgments. However, religiousness did not predict moral
transgression judgments when we controlled for political conservatism. This confirms previous
findings that political conservatives judge moral transgressions more harshly (Eskine et al.,
We can only speculate why we found conflicting results to the Eskine et al., (2011)
study. In the present study, the same beverage was used to elicit disgust as in that previous
study, the doses were administered at the same time points, and the instructions to the
participants were identical. However, in the verbal debriefing after the experiment, several
participants stated that they found the beverage unpleasant but not actually disgusting. Further,
when asked about their feelings of disgust, participants might have equated distaste with
disgust which may explain the high disgust ratings in the disgust, and disgust and elevation,
Perhaps a more effective way to induce disgust would have been to expose participants
to a disgusting smell (cf. Schnall et al, 2010), as the assumed primal evolutionary experience
of disgust arose from the odors of rotting meat (Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 2008).
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 17
Although participants were significantly more elevated when watching the elevation
inducing video compared to when watching the control video about the oceans, the elevation
ratings were fairly high in participants who watched the control video too. Additionally, several
participants mentioned in the verbal debriefing that they experienced the control video as
elevating. The depiction of beautiful nature in the ocean video might have elicited elevation
mildly or an emotional experience that has features overlapping with elevation such as awe
(Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Shiota et al., 2007). Thus, the experience of awe or mild elevation
might have attenuated the effects of disgust on moral judgment, and thus, could explain why
disgust did not render the judgment of moral transgressions more severe. Therefore, a control
video that does not depict scenes that could be perceived as beautiful should be used in future
studies. Finally, in future studies a larger sample size should be used, given that only 15 of the
analyzed participants had been assigned to the disgust condition.
Participants. Seventy-five participants initially participated in this online study.
Participants were recruited via posts in Facebook groups of European universities. High
proficiency in English and an age between 18 and 35 years were specified as requirements for
participation. As a compensation for participations chance to win Amazon gift vouchers was
The participants were randomly assigned to either the control condition or elevation
condition. Seven participants were later excluded because they either guessed the aim of the
experiment correctly or did not follow instructions. Thus, 68 participants (53 female; mean age
= 22.29, SD = 2.72, range = 18-35) were included in the data analysis. Of these participants, 33
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 18
were in the control and 35 were in the elevation condition.
Materials and procedure. The experiment was created and conducted via Gorilla.sc
(www.gorilla.sc/about) and took about 12-15 minutes for each participant to complete.
Participants were requested to perform the study in a quiet environment, in a full screen mode,
using earphones or having their loudspeakers turned on.
The components of the experiment were almost identical to Study 1: participants were
asked to indicate their demographic data, watched either a control or an elevation inducing
video, and then rated the degree of elevation they experienced. Then they rated the distractor
items, moral virtue vignettes, and moral transgression vignettes; following which they
indicated their political orientation, religiousness, and what they guessed the aim of the
experiment was. Importantly, the moral virtue vignettes were presented prior to the moral
transgression vignettes so that the ratings were not biased by the moral transgression
judgments, because the main hypothesis was based on them, whereas the effects of elevation
on moral transgression judgments was only investigated exploratively. Furthermore, because in
Study 1 the video may have increased elevation ratings in the control condition, in the present
Study 2, a different video of three minutes' duration showing a train ride from the perspective
of the conductor (https://vimeo.com/219934646), that was expected to elicit no elevation, was
Manipulation checks. The reliability of the elevation scale was found to be highly
reliable (5 items; = .93). Participants in the elevation condition (M = 6.50, SD = 1.53) were
significantly more elevated than participants in the control condition (M = 2.76, SD = 1.36),
t(66) = 10.63, p < .001, d = 2.62 (very large effect size; see Figure 4). Moreover, participants in
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 19
the control condition of the present study (M = 2.76, SD = 1.36) experienced significantly less
elevation compared to participants in the control condition of Study 1 (M = 5.22, SD = 1.40),
t(50) = 6.21, p < .001, d = 1.78 (very large effect size). Moral
judgments. As predicted, participants in the elevation condition (M = 7.19, SD = 1.25) judged
moral virtues as being more morally good, compared to participants in the control condition
(M = 6.40, SD = 1.54), t(66) = 2.32, p = .023, d = 0.57 (medium effect size; see Figure 5).
Furthermore, independent sample t-tests revealed no significant differences between the
control and elevation condition in gender, t(66) = -0.42, p = .68, age, t(66) = -1.32, p = .19,
political orientation, t(66) = -1.08, p = .28, and religiousness, t(66) = -0.53, p = .60.
Political orientation was nonsignificantly correlated with the judgment of moral virtues,
Pearson's r(65) = .10, p = .44. Moreover, there was a nonsignificant correlation between
religiousness and moral virtue judgments, Pearson's r(65) = .01, p = .96. An explorative bivariate
correlation revealed a significant relationship between the severity of moral transgression
judgments and religiousness, Pearson's r(65) = .27, p = .03. Surprisingly, political orientation (M
= 5.40, SD = 1.10) had a very low non-significant correlation with the judgment of moral
transgressions, r(65) = - .02.
The aim of Study 2 was to investigate whether elevation amplifies moral virtue judgments
and thus, whether participants who are experiencing elevation judge morally good acts as more
morally good. Participants who watched the elevation inducing video experienced significantly
more elevation than participants who watched the neutral video.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 20
Most importantly, participants who were elevated judged acts of moral virtue as being
more morally good than participants who were in a more neutral mood and not experiencing
elevation. This supports the hypothesis that elevation amplifies moral virtue judgments.
In contrast to the major research on elevation that focused on the features of elevation (e.g.
Algoe & Haidt, 2009), and on the effects of elevation on prosocial behavior (e.g. Schnall et al.,
2010) and prejudice (Lai et al., 2014), the present study investigated how elevation is causally
connected to moral judgment.
In previous studies, it was shown that disgust is not only caused by witnessing moral norm
violations (Horberg et al., 2009), but that it also renders the judgment of moral transgressions
more severe, that is, it makes morally wrong behavior seem even more morally wrong (Wheatley
& Haidt, 2005). This indicates a bidirectional causal connection between disgust and moral
judgment. For elevation, however, there has only been, so far, evidence for a causal connection
in one direction: elevation is elicited by an appraisal that an act is morally beautiful (Haidt,
The present study provides evidence for a bidirectional causal connection between
elevation and moral judgment. It suggests that elevation is not only experienced when witnessing
an act of moral beauty, but that experiencing elevation also influences the judgment of morally
beautiful acts, making morally good acts seem even more morally good. Further, this finding is
consistent with Horberg et al.'s (2011) appraisal tendency approach according to which emotions
amplify moral judgment depending on their respective core appraisals.
Two studies were conducted in order to investigate the role of elevation in moral
judgment and its relation to disgust. Our major finding, from Study 2, was that elevation and
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 21
moral behavior are bidirectionally causally connected: Elevation is elicited by acts of moral
beauty and also amplifies the judgment concerning virtuous acts, that is, it amplifies moral
judgments related to its core appraisal, possibly by amplifying sociomoral concern regarding
others’ virtues (cf. Horberg et al., 2011). Thus, evidence for a causal connection between
elevation and moral virtue judgments was demonstrated.
This finding also provides further evidence for Haidt’s (2001) social intuitionist approach
to moral judgment which proposes that moral judgment is caused by (affective) intuitions,
whereas moral reasoning is most typically a post hoc process that makes moral judgments
verbally accessible and allows one to justify them to others. Our findings showed that judgments
of how morally virtuous somebody’s acts are, may not be caused by moral reasoning but are, at
least partially, determined by the emotion of elevation.
Our initial hypothesis, in Study 1, that elevation can counteract the effects of disgust on
moral transgression judgments, was not confirmed. This hypothesis was inferred from Haidt’s
(2003a) theoretical claim that there is a third dimension of social cognition which regulates
social interactions by influencing people to strive for purity and to avoid impurity of body and
mind. The lower end of this dimension is associated with disgust, whereas elevation is the
emotional response to the upper end. Furthermore, the features of disgust (e.g. nausea, feeling
dragged down, avoidance motivation) are diametrically opposed to the features of elevation (e.g.
warm glow in the chest, feeling lifted up, and approach motivation); this suggests that elevation
is the opposite of moral disgust (Haidt, 2003a). The present studies neither supported nor
contradicted this hypothesis since we did not replicate Eskine et al.’s (2011) findings that disgust
amplifies moral transgression judgments, and thus, could not test whether elevation counteracts
the effects of disgust on moral transgression judgments. Further, our
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 22
findings regarding the correlation between political orientation and moral transgression
judgments were inconsistent between the two studies. Reasons for the non-significant
correlation in Study 2 could have been that the mean of political orientation was high (very
liberal) and the standard deviation was low which may have reduced the power of the statistics,
or because the moral transgression vignettes had been presented exploratively after the moral
virtue vignettes which may have biased the responses on those vignettes.
The elevation ratings in the control condition for Study 2 were much lower than those in
Study 1, whereas ratings for the elevation inducing video were almost identical. This indicates
that the control video in Study 1 may well have been inducing emotions similar to elevation,
such as awe. Also, as noted above, the bitters seemed not to induce disgust as expected. This
provides a cautionary tale for future disgust and elevation researchers: (a) be cautious with
selecting the control video, it should not show anything beautiful or potential inspiring; (b) avoid
using bitters to induce disgust. Furthermore, three of the moral transgression vignettes used in
Study 1 described unusual scenarios. In order to ensure ecological validity, one might consider
using only vignettes which describe everyday scenarios.
The generalizability of our results is limited by both the size and constitution of our
samples. In particular, in Study 2, 78% of the participants were women. It seems likely that there
are gender differences in regard to susceptibility to disgust and to elevation. For example,
women tend to notice the eliciting condition of elevation, moral beauty, more than men (Hui &
Diessner, 2015), and are somewhat more prone to experience elevation than men (Algoe &
Haidt, 2009; Freeman, Aquino, & McFerran, 2009; Landis et al., 2009). Therefore, our findings
in Study 2 may apply more to women than to men.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 23
Because the theoretical claim regarding the relationship between disgust and elevation is
important, and Study 1 did not replicate the findings that disgust makes judgments of moral
transgressions more severe, possibly due to flaws in the research materials, we hope to replicate
the study with an improved design and use of materials. For example, one could use only
vignettes exemplifying purity in order to amplify the effects of disgust on moral judgment, use a
control video that does not induce awe or elevation (avoid anything participants might perceive
as beautiful), and use a subtler way to induce disgust. This might then allow more valid
investigation of the effect of disgust on moral judgment, and therefore, might allow testing of the
hypothesis that elevation attenuates this effect.
To expand the research on the role of elevation in moral judgment, the effects of elevation
on moral judgment could be differentiated from the role of other positive moral emotions such as
gratitude or compassion on moral judgment. For example, no published study has investigated
whether or how gratitude influences moral judgment. Because the eliciting appraisal of gratitude
is reciprocity (Horberg et al., 2011), gratitude might bias judgments of moral acts involving
reciprocity. This would further test Horberg et al. (2011)'s claim that the way emotions bias
moral judgment is dependent on the emotion's distinct appraisals rather than the emotion's
Another direction would be to investigate the various possible determinants of the
amplification of moral virtue judgments in elevation. For example, it could be tested whether
enhancing the physiological response of elevation (e.g. creating a warm feeling in the chest by
using a heat cushion) would amplify the effects of elevation on moral virtue judgments.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 24
Furthermore, it could be investigated whether presenting non-moral beauty stimuli would
have the same effects on moral judgment as using stimuli that portray morally beautiful acts. In
the present study, it was found that elevation ratings for a video depicting nature were higher
than for a video depicting a train ride. Thus, we wonder if non-moral beauty stimuli might elicit
elevation, despite the definition of elevation being that it is elicited by moral beauty.
Another interesting question concerns elevation, moral virtue judgments and the moral
foundation of purity. Are the effects of elevation on moral virtue judgments stronger for
illustrations/vignettes of upholding purity norms? This would complement the findings that
disgust is more strongly associated with purity norm violations than with moral violations in
other domains (Horberg et al., 2009).
Research on elevation is still a young field, with many questions about its elicitors,
features, relations to moral judgment, and influences on social processes remaining. The present
research contributed to the understanding of elevation by investigating its role in moral
judgment. Future research should expand the knowledge on the determinants and processes that
causally connect elevation and moral judgment.
Although it is important to study the influence of other-condemning emotions, such as
anger and disgust, on moral judgment, it is just as important to study the moral emotions that
make us appreciate others' actions and make us better human beings. Research on elevation
might help us to find pathways through which to facilitate acts of moral virtue that help make our
world a better world.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 25
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Figure 1: Self-reported elevation as a function of induced emotions (Study 1). Error bars
represent the standard error of the mean.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 32
Figure 2: Self-reported disgust as a function of induced emotions (Study 1). Error bars represent
the standard error of the mean.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 33
Figure 3: Moral transgression judgments as a function of induced emotions (Study 1). Error bars
represent the standard error of the mean.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 34
Figure 4: Self-reported elevation as a function of induced emotion (Study 2). Error bars represent
the standard error of the mean.
ELEVATION AND MORAL JUDGMENT 35
Figure 5: Mean moral virtue judgments as a function of induced emotion (Study 2). Error bars
represent the standard error of the mean.