Monday, March 11, 2019

The Role of Motivation, Attention and Design in the Spread of Moralized Content Online

Brady, William J., Molly Crockett, and Jay J. Van Bavel. 2019. “The MAD Model of Moral Contagion: The Role of Motivation, Attention and Design in the Spread of Moralized Content Online.” PsyArXiv. March 11. doi:10.31234/

Abstract: With over 2 billion active users, online social networks represent an important venue for moral and political discourse and have been used to organize political revolutions, sway elections, and raise awareness of social issues. These examples rely on a common process in order to be effective: the ability to engage users and spread moralized content through online networks. Here, we review evidence that expressions of moral emotion play a key role in the spread of moralized content (a phenomenon we call ‘moral contagion’). Next, we propose a psychological model to explain moral contagion. The ‘MAD’ model of moral contagion argues that people are motivated to share moral-emotional content; that such content is especially likely to capture attention; and that the design of social media platforms facilitates its spread. We review each component of the model and raise several novel, testable hypotheses that can spark progress on the scientific investigation of civic engagement and activism, political polarization, propaganda and disinformation, and moralized consumer behavior in the digital age.

Both girls and boys engage in gender-enforcing behavior (try to exclude others due to their gender); aggression and biased gender-related beliefs are associated with gender-enforcing behavior

Characteristics of Preschool Gender Enforcers and Peers Who Associate with Them. Sonya Xinyue Xiao et al. Sex Roles, Mar 2019,

Abstract: Children who try to exclude others due to their gender can be considered as “gender enforcers.” Using multiple methods (observations, interviews) and informants (children, teachers, teacher aides), we investigated the prevalence of gender enforcement, the characteristics of gender enforcers, and potential associations of exposure to gender enforcers. Participants were 98 (Mage = 49.47 months, SD = 11.40; 52% boys) preschoolers from a southwestern city in the United States. Results showed that both girls and boys engage in gender-enforcing behavior. Further, findings suggest that aggression and biased gender-related beliefs are associated with gender-enforcing behavior. Children who spent more time (over months) with enforcers were observed to play more with same-gender peers and to show more biased gender cognitions than were children who spent less time with enforcers. The study extends our understanding of how gender norms are enforced in early childhood, and it provides insights that may help to identify young gender enforcers. These findings have potential to inform future research and practice related to gender-based aggression in childhood.

Keywords: Gender beliefs Gender norms Peer pressure Peer relations

People condemn scientific procedures they perceive to involve playing God; judge a novel scientific practice to involve more playing God and to be more morally unacceptable; happens even to non-believers

Aversion to playing God and moral condemnation of technology and science. Adam Waytz and Liane Young. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B, Volume 374, Issue 1771, March 11 2019.

Abstract: This research provides, to our knowledge, the first systematic empirical investigation of people's aversion to playing God. Seven studies validate this construct and show its association with negative moral judgements of science and technology. Motivated by three nationally representative archival datasets that demonstrate this relationship, studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that people condemn scientific procedures they perceive to involve playing God. Studies 3–5 demonstrate that dispositional aversion to playing God corresponds to decreased willingness to fund the National Science Foundation and lower donations to organizations that support novel scientific procedures. Studies 6a and 6b demonstrate that people judge a novel (versus established) scientific practice to involve more playing God and to be more morally unacceptable. Finally, study 7 demonstrates that reminding people of an existing incident of playing God reduces concerns towards scientific practices. Together, these findings provide novel evidence for the impact of people's aversion to playing God on science and policy-related decision-making.

1. Introduction

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the eponymous Victor Frankenstein animates a human-like creature through scientific experimentation, stating, ‘A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me’ ([1], p. 101). Yet, by the story's end, the experiment has gone horribly wrong, and the creature, a monster, turns against Frankenstein. Many have read Frankenstein as a critique of humans' desire to play God, a romantic indictment of the Enlightenment's scientific advancements.
This critique of playing God pervades people's opposition toward science and technology. Sunstein ([2], p. 539) describes aversion to playing God as a heuristic [3] that guides1 moral disapproval of human intervention in the domains of sex, reproduction and nature: ‘“Do not play God” is the general heuristic here, with different societies specifying what falls in that category and with significant changes over time’. Despite its apparent importance, though, behavioural science has largely ignored the principle ‘Do not play God’ as a topic of study, work emerging in the fields of genetic engineering [4], nature conservation [5] and medicine [6] instead. The current work addresses this gap within behavioural science.
Scholars have put forth several definitions of playing God, with varying specificity. Most broadly, playing God involves what science scholar, Philip Ball [7], refers to as, ‘Mankind assuming powers beyond our station or our ability to control’. The current work adapts this general definition and focuses on a single domain that typifies aversion to playing God—people's responses to human intervention in science and technology.
Aversion to playing God, and its basis in aversion to human interference in the natural order (supported empirically in studies 6a and 6b), resembles other related but conceptually distinct constructs. Moral foundations theory [811], for example, specifies one moral foundation related to aversion to playing God: purity/sanctity. This foundation has theoretical roots in the moral code of purity/divinity, detailed as follows ([12], p. 576, italics added): ‘A person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement’. The link between impurity and violating the ‘natural order of things' is critical to the code of purity/divinity and yet has gone largely unexplored. We believe that understanding aversion to playing God can illuminate this link.
Closest to this topic is work on naturalness bias—people's preference for natural processes and products rather than those that originate from human-imposed agency on the natural order of things [13,14]. Rozin ([15], p. 31) notes that ‘Human intervention seems to be an amplifier in judgements on food riskiness and contamination’, and Sunstein ([2], p. 539) notes that secular societies endorse a version of the ‘Do not play God’ principle in the form of ‘Do not tamper with nature’. Extensive work reveals people's preference for foods and medicines produced naturally and without human intervention [16,17].
More recent work suggests that naturalness bias might be linked to moral aversion to taboo trade-offs, a social transaction that places a monetary price on a value that people perceive to be sacred [18,19]. Work examining people's aversion to genetically modified food suggests that it elicits dislike not only for its ‘unnaturalness’, but also elicits moral emotional responses (e.g. disgust) similar to canonical taboo trade-offs [20].
Despite the resemblance between people's naturalness bias (and related constructs) and people's aversion to playing God, these constructs are nevertheless distinct. A pilot study (electronic supplementary material) reveals several practices that people perceive to involve tampering with nature but not playing God (e.g. emitting carbon monoxide while driving) as well as practices perceived to involve playing God but not tampering with nature (e.g. airline Chief Executive Officers' conspiring to fix prices). In addition, study 2 presents one case largely unrelated to nature (drone warfare) and establishes a link between aversion to playing God and moral judgement.
The link between principles regarding God and principles regarding nature and the natural order also aligns with extensive work on intuitive theism—people's implicit belief that a supernatural deity has intelligently designed nature itself [2123]. Importantly, we take aversion to playing God to be distinct from religious cognition in three ways. First, our pilot study (electronic supplementary material) distinguishes playing God from judgements of religious violations. Second, across studies we show that religiosity does not explain the relationship between aversion to playing God and moral judgement. Third, we demonstrate that aversion to playing God need not involve any consideration of God as the source of action per se and that aversion to playing God is distinct from religious conviction.
The present research characterizes the relationship between aversion to playing God and moral attitudes primarily in the domains of science and technology. Scientific procedures frequently involve human intervention in nature and sacred aspects of human experience [18]. Our overarching hypothesis is that aversion to playing God corresponds to negative attitudes toward science and technology across diverse contexts. Three archival nationally representative datasets provide initial support for this relationship (electronic supplementary material) and motivate the present empirical work.

2. Overview of studies

Studies 1 and 2 provide initial support that people morally condemn practices to the degree that they see them as involving playing God. Studies 3–5 extend these findings by showing that aversion to playing God corresponds to behavioural intentions and behaviours including willingness to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF), and real monetary donations to organizations supporting stem cell research and genetically modified rice. Given that this is, to our knowledge, the first systematic psychological examination of aversion to playing God, we also examine an important moderator—novelty. Studies 6a and 6b present a case in which the relationship between aversion to playing God and moral condemnation is modulated by the novel versus established nature of the act. Study 7 extends these findings by demonstrating that reminders of existing acts of playing God (i.e. reducing the perceived novelty of playing God) improve attitudes toward scientific practices.


3. Discussion

These studies establish, for the first time, to our knowledge, aversion to playing God as a valid psychological construct relevant to judgements of science and technology including robotics (drones), GMOs, vaccinations and stem cell research. Importantly, our findings provide critical evidence for the association between aversion to playing God and moral condemnation of novel scientific practices, even when these practices benefit human well-being [27].
Given that this research represents, to our knowledge, the first systematic examination of aversion to playing God, several key questions emerge. One is the degree to which aversion to playing God causally influences moral judgement towards science and technology. Although we acknowledge the plausibility of a bidirectional relationship between these constructs, study 7, in particular, supports a causal pathway from aversion to playing God to moral judgement. Future research can examine this pathway as well, for example, testing whether people condemn a chemical change in an organism that results from human intervention more than one that results from randomness, and whether perceptions of playing God drive any difference. Given that existing work shows that people view human-caused harm as worse than naturally arising harm and harm caused by acts worse than harm by omission [28], and that people prefer natural products and processes (that are chemically identical) to human-made ones [16], we believe these effects are likely.
Another key question is whether aversion to playing God simply reflects general moral condemnation. The present research suggests this is not the case. First, study 5 shows that aversion to playing God positively correlates with support for the Cure Violence charity, and study 6b shows aversion to playing God is unrelated to the moral acceptability of an established practice in the legal domain. In other words, the relationship between aversion to playing God and moral judgement is not consistent across contexts. Second, the inconsistent relationship between aversion to playing God and political ideology suggests that this construct does not merely reflect a particular political profile associated with a particular set of moral foundations [9,10]. Archival studies 1b and 1c (electronic supplementary material) also show little association between ideology and aversion to playing God. Thus, aversion to playing God reflects a specific moral concern that emerges among liberals and conservatives alike.
A related question is whether aversion to playing God simply reflects religious conviction. The present research suggests that aversion to playing God represents a distinct construct from religiosity or belief in God. First, across studies, measures of religiosity and belief in God do not account for the association between aversion to playing God and disapproval of science and technology. Aversion to playing God predicts moral condemnation above and beyond religious constructs. Second, the pilot study (electronic supplementary material) and study 2 showed no association between measures of religiosity or belief in God and aversion to playing God. The inconsistent relationship between religiosity and aversion to playing God across studies may stem from opposing influences of religious belief on perceptions of playing God. As documented here, when a relationship between religious belief and aversion to playing God emerges, it is typically positive. That is, believers deliver harsher moral judgements than non-believers. This pattern probably stems from an explicit code within many Judeo-Christian traditions that calls for respecting God's authority as a sole creator [29,30]; thus, intervening in matters such as reproduction is incompatible with respect for God as an ultimate agent. Yet, some Judeo-Christian sects, such as Lutheranism, teach adherents to carry out the will of God through their actions [31]. Therefore, followers may view certain interventions as essential to their religion. Because no comparisons among religions are offered here, future work is needed to assess whether aversion to playing God is attenuated for religions that explicitly instruct people to be secondary agents for God's plans.
As it stands, one of the current limitations of this work is its generalizability to adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions, which as of now is an open question. For example, a strict interpretation of the Islamic idea of Tawhid (one should not worship other Gods nor take on Godhead for oneself) would prohibit acts of playing God, yet the Islamic spiritual tradition of Sufism also allows people to take divine traits so that God can act ‘through them’ ([32], p. 417). Other scholars suggest that playing God in the case of cloning is less of a concern for Hinduism and Buddhism because it fits with the idea of reincarnation [29], although these religions' views about the creation and destruction of life complicate this question [33]. Ultimately, future research can test the strength of aversion to playing God in other religions.
Given the prevalence of atheism [34], future research may also examine whether even atheists demonstrate an aversion to playing God at an implicit level. Although our work demonstrates a relationship between increased religiosity and aversion to playing God, aversion to playing God is present across the religious spectrum in all of the present studies. Atheists may therefore demonstrate their aversion at an implicit level, similar to other aspects of religious cognition that emerge even among those who explicitly disavow religious belief [22,35]; indeed, recent studies have shown that religious primes affect moral behaviour and public self-awareness even among atheists [36,37]. At an explicit level, atheists might express their aversion in non-religious terms, such as ‘Do not tamper with nature’, as noted by Sunstein ([2], p. 539).
Overall, our work suggests that most people believe (implicitly or explicitly) that, in the domains of science and technology, human intervention should be avoided and instead left to a more metaphysical source of action—for theists that source might be God, and for atheists or others that source might be fate [38], nature or some other agentic practice already in place. In other words, aversion to playing God may not necessarily reflect an aversion to humans' taking on the role of a religious spirit or creator, but rather an aversion to human agency in a domain in which another agent is thought to be responsible.
Given that playing God is not reducible to religiosity or belief in God, other related beliefs about secular pre-existing systems or agents governing science might similarly affect moral judgements of science and scientific progress. For example, belief in the infallible capacity of nature might impede views on scientific innovation as well. Take, for example, the hotly contested debate over GMOs. Spitznagel & Taleb [39] argue against genetically modified food by stating, ‘The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up, by tinkering in small steps…In nature, errors stay confined and, critically, isolated’. This belief in nature's near-perfect ability may stifle innovation in food production and farming [40], inspiring beliefs (akin to aversion to playing God) that humans should not interfere in these domains. Study 6b hints at the contribution of belief in a natural order to these attitudes.
In summary, aversion to playing God, which may result from ideas about deference to God or some higher organizing power as the ultimate agent, can increase inertia in moral and scientific domains. Given rapid advances in reproductive technology, pharmaceuticals and robotics and artificial intelligence, and the novelty of these advancements, we expect aversion to playing God to continue to influence public opposition towards these developments. Particularly in the domain of social robotics, as scientists and developers become increasingly Frankensteinian in engineering human-like agents, the present work suggests the importance of understanding where negative attitudes towards these agents originate and how to mollify them, in efforts to facilitate scientific progress.


Informed consent was obtained from all participants and institutional review board approval was obtained for all studies we conducted. For the GSS, used in archival study 1a, informed consent was obtained from participants and this survey was approved by the institutional review board at NORC at the University of Chicago. The survey used in archival study 1b was approved by the institutional review board at Johns Hopkins University that granted exempt status for consent. For the polls used in archival study 1c, they were conducted within the CASRO standards for research and all participants received informed consent before participating.

Data accessibility

The data supporting this article are available in the Dryad Digital Repository: [41].

Authors' contributions

Both authors designed the studies, analysed the data, drafted the paper and approved the final submission.

Competing interests

We have no competing interests.


We received no external funding for this study.


We thank the GPPC for archival study 1b data, and Kurt Gray, Adam Galinsky, Linda Skitka, Jonathan Baron, Josh Rottman, Ellen Winner, Fiery Cushman and Ryan Miller for helpful comments.


1 Although we assume the causal pathway from aversion to playing God to moral judgement and explicitly support this pathway empirically in study 7, we also acknowledge that people may use assessment of playing God to justify moral judgment post hoc.
2 Our data contained 11 people who made donations outside of 3 s.d. either for Cure Violence or for the National Stem Cell Foundation, and whose exclusion alters the significance of these findings. Given our a priori decision not to exclude outliers and given the bounded nature of this measure, we chose to include these participants in our analyses as they represent meaningful data points of people who feel strongly about donating to one charity or the other. Furthermore, regressing donations transformed by square root (such that they no longer represent values outside of 3 s.d.) on APG reveals the same significant results reported in the primary analyses.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at
One contribution of 17 to a theme issue ‘From social brains to social robots: applying neurocognitive insights to human–robot interaction’.