Home > gaming the studies, psychology > Gaming the Studies – Judgemental Minds

Gaming the Studies – Judgemental Minds

Fri 31 Oct 2014 16:47:09 Leave a comment Go to comments

This post is part of a series on the research studies on sexism cited in the FeministFrequency video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The first post in that series covered my views on the FeministFrequency videos and can be found here.

This post in the series is continues covering background information about the relevant parts of the field of social psychology, the beginning of which can be found here. I plan on doing detailed explanation and analysis of each study in subsequent posts.



Operationalising Imagery

The studies cited by FeministFrequency mostly rely on presenting sexualised imagery of women. There are other elements involved, such as the objectifying virtualised behaviour in the Leisure Suit Larry game, but manipulation of appearance is consistent. For this reason it is important to consider what other effects have been observed from manipulating appearance.

In a 2009 study,1 researchers took photographs of 113 individuals and had subjects judge the individual’s personality from the photographs alone. No individual knew they were going to be photographed beforehand and they were each photographed twice: once in a natural position and once directed to hold a neutral expression and posture. The subjects judged one photo of each person and rated them against 49 different criteria covering a range of personality traits. The photographed individuals were also judged against the same critiea by three ‘informants’ who knew the individual well in real life. Each of the photos was also independently coded for visual cues such as smiling, folded arms, tiredness, etc.

The results demonstrated to what extent various cues influenced peoples perceptions. Results for static cues present in both natural and neutral poses showed that healthiness, distinctiveness and neatness could affect perceptions of range of personality traits including extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, likability, self-esteem, and politcal orientation. Results from dynamic cues, present only in the natural poses, showed that smiling, stance energy and stance tenseness could affect perceptions of the same range of traits. The results also indicated that the perceptions based solely on naturally posed photos correlated well with the views of the ‘informants’ on a number of traits including extraversion, agreeableness, openness, self-esteem, loneliness and religiosity.

Other studies have identified other influentual cues. A study by Jane Workman and Kim Johnson2 found that the college aged women perceived their peers as less moral when they wore more makeup. A study by Norbert Schawrz and Eva Kurz3 in 1989 found that subjects would rate individuals as possessing more intelligence, assertiveness, ambition, etc when looking at a photo cropped to portrait-style and resized than when looking at the original full-body photo. This effect was found to be mostly consistent across genders. Finally, a recent study by Laurden McDermott and Terry Pettijohn4 showed that the impact of certain factors can intersect and have a reverse affect. They studied the perceptions of both African American and Caucasian women wearing sweatshirts with either “Kmart”, “Abercrombie & Fitch” or no logo. The results showed that subjects were less likely to consider African American women as potentional friends when they were wearing the “Abercrombie & Fitch” compared to the “Kmart” logo, while the effects were reversed for Caucasian women.

It is evident from these studies that a wide range of visual cues influence perceptions of people including perceptions of their mental capabilities and moral worthiness. This can only add to the complexity of using human images rather than words as stimili in experiments on priming effects. It also raises the question of how people might form their judgments.



Reasonably Moral

The majority of the FeministFrequency studies utilise questionaires that probe the subjects for responses about views on sexual harassment, rape or the mental attributes and moral worth of women. In order to be able to interpret the meaning of these responses the best we can, it is worth considering what we know about how people form their views about moral issues. This is an area of social psychology that is at least as much about philosophy as it is about empirical research, yet it may still offer some insight into what is going on in people’s minds.

The most prevalent theory on moral reasoning comes from the work of Lawrence Kolberg. Kolberg’s theory is that as individuals age they progress through a series of steps that represent capacity to reason about morality in a particular ways. The six steps are divided by their relationship to ‘conventional’ reasoning:

Pre-Conventional 1. basic obedience;
2. self-interest;
Conventional 3. conformity;
4. authority;
Post-Conventional 5.social contract; and
6. universal ethical principles.



The level of moral reasoning is assessed by asking subjects to address moral dilemmas, such as the Heinz Dilemma, in an open ended manner. The structure of the responses is then scored against the six forms of moral reasoning in the theory.

In a 20 year longitudinal study5, Kohlberg and others recorded the development of moral reasoning in a group of boys. The study revealed how the moral reasoning most commonly used moved through stages as the boys aged. Kohlberg managed to produce only limited evidence for the use of stage 5 reasoning and eventually concluded he should drop stage 6 from the theory due to the lack of consistent evidence of its use.

I’ve reproduced the graph from that study and included an indication of the mean age of the subjects in the experimental studies cited by FeministFrequency. Although the maximum ages in the studies indicates some outliers (e.g. 37, 44), the fact that the minimum age (18) in the studies is close to the mean implies the majority of the subjects fall roughly in the area of the lines. As seen below, this suggests any results may be reflective of only certain forms of moral reasoning.

Kohlberg vs Studies Graph

Kohlberg’s theory is not without its critics. Feminist Carol Gilligan has criticised Kohlberg’s theories as too focused on the male perspective. In her 1982 book A Different Voice6, Gilligan proposed an alternative theory of moral reasoning which she called the Ethics of Care. Gilligan’s theory frames female moral reasoning as focused on obligations to care for one another, rather than about the pursuit of abstract justice. She put forth three stage development process that consists of:

Pre-Conventional 1. self-interest;
Conventional 2. self-sacrifice; and
Post-Conventional 3.responsibility to care and avoid harm.


Researchers Nancy Clopton and Gwendolyn Sorell have seemlingly offered a compromise between these two different theories. They considered both perspectives in a study on parents of both abled and disabled children.7 A number of different dilemmas were put to the parents that varied between low personal relevance (i.e. about a someone else’s child) and high personal relevance (i.e. about their own child). One of the dilemmas include a hypothetical disabled child that was theorised to have more personal relevance to the parents of disabled children.

The finding contradicted Gilligan’s theory of a gender basis for moral reasoning. Analysis of the responses showed no variation in moral reasoning approach between the mothers and the fathers. Instead, analysis showed that the responses varied in relation to the personal relevance of the dilemma. An ethics of care approach was typically used for dilemmas of high personal relevance, while a justice approach was used for dilemmas of low personal relevence. This suggests the moral reasoning could vary depending on circumstances of the dilemma but not directly on gender. One of the conclusions was that the different life experiences of men and women would explain discrepancies in the different ways they might prioritise or report the forms of moral reasoning they use.

Kohlberg’s theory has also come under criticism from a conservative perspective. Conservative critics observed that placing forms of reasoning associated with progressive ideals (social contract, universal ethics) above the conservative ideal of law and order demostrated a progressive bias in the theory. There haven’t been any major theories put forward from the conserative perspective (perhaps for not-so-good reasons), however there have been some studies looking at the relationship between moral reasoning and political orientation.

A 1973 study by James Fishkinm, Kenneth Keniston and Catherine Mackinnion supported such a relationship.8 They found that use of stage 2 reasoning (self-interest) correlated with favourable views of violent radicalism, use of stage 4 reasoning (authority) correlated with conservative views and use of stage 5 and 6 reasoning (post-conventional) correlated with rejecting conservative but not accepting radical views. Although not published in a peer-review journal, I also found an potentially interesting thesis dissertation by Jeffrey Kunka9. He conducted a study and observed that subjects who reported conservative political views scored lower on moral reasoning when expecting their responses to be anonymous. He also found when subjects expected to have to justify their views to others, there was a sizable increase in the moral reasoning level used by conservative subjects. This suggests that the use of moral reasoning may be as much about personal values and circumstance as it is about capacity to reason.



Reactively Moral

In a 2001 essay10 Jonathan Haidt proposed a theory that turned the moral reasoning approach on its head. He theorised that people form their moral conclusions first and then subsequently form a rationalisation in order to justify it. In a 2007 study,11 together with Jesse Graham, he proposed five moral foundations people intuitively use to react to moral issues, and in 2012 proposed adding a sixth.12 Haidt’s moral foundations are:

Original 1. self-interest;
2. Fairness/cheating;
3. Loyalty/betrayal;
4. Authority/subversion;
5. Sanctity/degradation;
2012 Addition 6. Liberty/oppression


They measured the relevative weight of each foundation by directly asking subjects to what extent they were thinking about it (e.g. “How important is whether or not someone acted unfairly?”). They also asked subjects to rate their political orientation from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. The results showed those with extremely liberal orientation felt that the first two foundations were much more important that the others. Those who had an exteremly conservative orientation felt that all the foundations had roughly equal importance.

A 2012 study by Lars Hall, Petter Johansson and Thomas Strandberg13 supports Haidt’s post-hoc rationalisation theory but perhaps not necessarily the importance of the moral foundations. They conducted an experiment where they surveyed people to rate their views about general moral principles and contentious issues reported in the media. Once people had filled out their responses they used a simple trick to reverse the meaning of two of the prompts and hence reversed the meaning of the ratings. After the trick the experimenters interviewed the subject about the questions and confirmed the meaning of each issue with the subjects. The results showed “a full 69% of the participants failed to detect at least one of two changes”. Perhaps more striking is that they also found that “participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position”.

Those results strongly suggest that peoples’ moral views are vulnerable to manipulation. Combining the study above with the conclusions from Kunka’s study, we see that people are prone to morally defending a position they are expected to even though is not their own, and that the reasoning they use may depend on their audience. This suggests that views on morality may well be driven by the popular narratives of the company people choose to keep.

The discussion of the theory of priming in my previous post provides another possible form of manipulation. Priming could conceivably activate one form (or part of one form) of moral reasoning or foundation causing it to be more likely used and tehefore result in a potentional shift in moral conclusions. Given the nuance contained within each of these theories, and the general issues with priming research I covered in my previous post, it could be quite challenging to construct an experiment that provides confidence the results are related to one particular theory and not another.



Morality Objectified

The theories put forward by the studies cited by FeministFrequency are all based around the concept of objectification. As put forward by Martha Nussbaum14, objectification consists of seven features:

Objectification
Features
1. instrumentality;
2. denial of autonomy;
3. inertness;
4. fungibility;
5. violability;
5. ownership; and
5. denial of subjectivity.

The measurements in the studies focus on issues of sexual harassment and rape. This indicates that violability, that is violating boundaries, is the key feature of objectification that is being investigated. They also look at perspectives on women’s mental characteristics which indicates that denial of autonomy, intertness and denial of subjectivity may also be relevent.

The impact of objectification on how people make moral choices would seem to be something that could occur within a particular moral reasoning or intuition rather than as a result of a shift in the method. For example, within Kohlberg’s stage 3 reasoning of conformity, the denial of subjectivity feature could be a result of the perceived target norm of conformity shifting away from the objectified person’s perspective. Likewise,violability could represent a relative decrease in the importance of the care/harm or authority/subversion foundations when morally judging the objectified person or actions harmful actions against them. Given that moral reasoning or intuition can be influenced by circumstance, is it not unreasonable to theorise that objectification represents a mechanism through which this occurs.



Wrapping Up

I think that’s quite enough background information and hopefully that will provide some perspective of the broader research context. I had originally expected to cover all of it in a single post, however I found quite a bit of interesting information that can be related to the issue at hand. I should stress that although I’ve cited many studies, this does not mean I stand by them or their conclusions as some form of definitive evidence. I do feel that the studies I’ve cited are at least as convincing as any of the studies cited by FeministFrequency, and thus form a valid basis for criticism.

In my next post I’ll be setting out some criteria that I’ll be using in my assessment of the studies and how well they support the various claims.



  1. Laura Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling (2009). Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1661-1671.
  2. Jane Workman & Kim Johnson (1991). The Role of Cosmetics in Impression Formation. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 10, 63-67.
  3. Norbert Schwarz & Eva Kurz (1989). What’s in a picture? The impact of face-ism on trait attribution. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 311-316.
  4. Jane Workman & Kim Johnson II (2011). The Influence of Clothing Fashion and Race on the Perceived Socioeconomic Status and Person Perception of College Students. Psychology & Society, 4(2), 64-75.
  5. Anne Colby, Lawrence Kohlberg, John Gibbs & Marcus Lieberman (1987). A Longitudinal Study of Moral Judgment. Monpgraphs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 48(1), 200.
  6. Carol Gilligan (1982). In a Different Voice. Harvard Univesity Press. as discussed in: Candida Peterson (2012). Looking Forward Through the Lifespan: Developmental Psychology. Pearson Australia.
  7. Nancy Clopton & Gwendolyn Sorell (1993). Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning: Stable or Situational? Pschology of Women’s Quarterly, 17, 85-101.
  8. James Fishkinm, Kenneth Keniston & Catherine Mackinnion (1973). Moral Reasoning and Political Ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 109-119.
  9. Jeffrey Kunka (1986). Sociopolitical Orientation and Self-Presentation in Measurement of Moral Judgement. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  10. Jonathan Haidt (2001). The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review, 198(4), 814-834.
  11. Jonathan Haidt & Jesse Graham (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.
  12. Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter Ditto & Jonathan Haidt (2012). Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366.
  13. Lars Hall, Petter Johansson & Thomas Strandberg (2012). Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45457.
  14. Martha Nussbaum (1995). Objectification. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4), 249-291.
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  1. Fri 31 Oct 2014 16:51:56 at 16:51

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