Remember Why You Should Do It? Memory and Reasons in Moral Decision-making (2018-2019)


When faced with a moral decision, people often have many diverse reasons for and against the possible choices. Many philosophers argue that making and revising moral decisions ought to be a matter of deliberating over reasons, because reasons serve to favor or to justify choices for action. Duke researchers’ recent work has shown, however, that people typically make an initial moral decision and then set out to confirm the validity of that decision through biased and motivated reasoning. Because of this, people very rarely change their moral decisions. This is only part of the story, however. Memory for reasons likely plays a critical role in our propensity to keep our moral decisions fixed over time. This Bass Connections project will conduct experiments to investigate this issue.

Project Description

The project’s objective is to conduct six behavioral studies during the course of a year. The first experiment investigates whether, when individuals are provided with reasons for both sides of a contemporary moral issue (e.g., the death penalty), they are more likely to remember the reasons supporting the option initially chosen rather than the reasons opposing the option initially chosen. Project team members will conduct a two-session study. In session 1, participants will be presented with several contemporary moral issues and given the option to support or oppose a position for each issue (e.g., “I support the use of military drone strikes overseas” vs. “I do not support the use of military drone strikes overseas”). For each possible position in each issue, participants will then be shown four reasons supporting their initial chosen position and four reasons opposing it. Two weeks later, participants will return to the lab, where they will be presented with the same contemporary moral issues, along with both old and new reasons supporting and opposing their initial choices. They will be asked to identify, from memory, which reasons were presented in the first session.

The second experiment seeks to conceptually replicate and extend this first study but with classical philosophical moral dilemmas. Experiments 3 and 4 will compare memory for moral decision-making between cohorts of young and older adults. In experiments 5 and 6, the team will implement a new manipulation designed to reduce the suspected memory bias for supporting reasons over opposing reasons.

Anticipated Outcomes

Three coauthored papers based on project’s six experiments


Summer 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Summer 2018: Data collection and analysis for experiments 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Fall 2018: Continued work from summer
  • Spring 2019: Data collection for experiments 5, 6; writing manuscripts reporting results

This Team in the News

What I’m Working On: Why You Didn’t Do That Thing You’re Sure You Did

Abstract head/mind

Team Leaders

  • Roberto Cabeza, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Felipe De Brigard, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy
  • Matthew Stanley, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Alisa Bedrov, Psychology (AB), Russian (AB2)
  • Christopher Camp, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Sarah Haurin, Neuroscience (BS), Evolutionary Anthropology(BS2)
  • Shenyang Huang, Neuroscience (BS), Mathematics (BS2)
  • Olivia Lee, Sociology (AB)