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Investigating Moral Events: Characterization and Structure of Autobiographical Moral Memories


Escobedo, Jessica Rose (2009) Investigating Moral Events: Characterization and Structure of Autobiographical Moral Memories. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/M8XP-KT54.


Moral events and the actions, decisions and people they involve, are judged as right or wrong, and the moral responsibility associated with them generates further judgments, often legal in nature, of blame and punishment or praise. Not only do moral events and the normative judgments they presuppose define essential aspects of human nature, they are also ubiquitous at the level of society as well as the individual. Despite their importance, characterizing the sociological, psychological, and neurological features of moral events is in its infancy. Much of the recent research has focused on a priori philosophical frameworks and has used artificial events as probes, in part because collecting, characterizing and analyzing real-life moral events is a major undertaking. This dissertation attempts such an undertaking.

758 autobiographical memories of personal moral events were collected from a well-characterized and representative sample of 100 healthy Californian adults. Transcriptions of the events were further characterized and all data were entered into a large, searchable database. An initial set of results provides a detailed description of the participants and the memories of moral events they generated. This description showed that participants were highly representative of the general population of California; that the overall amount and patterns of moral events recollected was relatively universal and not influenced by gender, ethnicity, IQ, or personality; and that the moral events produced could generally be judged quite reliably both by the participants themselves as well as by independent raters.

The database was further analyzed with respect to three specific aims: (1) to study the semantic structure of real-life moral events; (2) to study the effects of focal lesions to emotion-related brain regions on recollection of moral events; (3) to study the temporal distribution of autobiographical moral events. We found that real-life moral events have a hierarchical structure, with two broad categories of “good” and “bad”, and subordinate categories of “good”, “lying”, “stealing”, and “hurting another person”. These categories define the most common scripts encountered in real life that have strong moral value. In studying neurological patients with focal lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the amygdala, we found no evidence for a notable skew in the moral events that were recollected, further evidence for the universality and robustness of such events in our autobiography. Finally, we found that positively valenced moral events were systematically recalled as being more recent in time than negatively valenced moral events, a temporal bias that was independent of absolute participant age. The methods used here, the database that was constructed, and the scientific questions that were analyzed constitute the first comprehensive investigation of a large number of real-life moral events and provide a rich resource for future studies.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:autobiographical memory; cued recall; emotion; emotional memory; memory; moral cognition; moral judgment; moral memory; moral narrative; moral recall; narrative; recency; recollection; reminiscence bump; self-image; temporal biasing
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Major Option:Biology
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Adolphs, Ralph
Thesis Committee:
  • Andersen, Richard A. (chair)
  • Woodward, Jim
  • Allman, John Morgan
  • Adolphs, Ralph
Defense Date:20 October 2008
Record Number:CaltechETD:etd-11112008-122002
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:4515
Deposited By: Imported from ETD-db
Deposited On:23 Dec 2008
Last Modified:26 Nov 2019 19:46

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[img] Other (CaltechMoralMemoryDatabase.mdb) - Supplemental Material
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