Emotion-Based Moral Processes

Empathy and Sympathy

The most prominent moral emotion that is conceptually and empirically linked to moral behaviors is empathy and its associated vicarious responses. Scholars have noted important distinctions among empathy, sympathy, and personal distress. Empathy refers to feeling the same as another as a result of another person's plight (Eisenberg et al., 2006; Hoffman, 2000). Empathy, thus, can be either positively valenced (e.g., joy) or negatively valenced (e.g., sadness). According to these scholars, empathy can sometimes lead to sympathy or personal distress responding. Sympathy is defined as feelings of sorrow or concern for another person. This emotion results from another person's plight but is always negatively valenced. Both empathy and sympathy have been most strongly linked to moral behaviors and both are also linked closely to perspective taking (i.e., cognitively understanding another person's thoughts, emotions, or social situation). Finally, personal distress is an emotion that is also closely linked with empathy but results in an aversive, physiologically arousing response that stems from another's plight. In contrast to empathy and sympathy, personal distress reflects an orientation to the self and one's own state and is not conceptually linked to helping others (unless helping results in reducing their personal distress). Moreover, the elements of empathic and sympathetic responding include the consideration of the needs of others, which can lead to altruistic (selfless-motivated) behaviors and mitigate harm and injury on others (e.g., aggressive and antisocial behaviors). Although most often empathy and sympathy are not adequately distinguished in research, evidence on the central role of empathy and sympathy in predicting prosocial and antisocial behaviors is generally corroborative (Carlo, 2006; Eisenberg et al., 2006).

Guilt and Shame

Other scholars have conceptually linked guilt and shame to moral behaviors (Hoffman, 2000; Kochanska, 1994; see Tangney & Dearing, 2002). Individuals who perceive themselves to have failed to meet their own moral standards are prone to guilt. In contrast, shame stems from a perceived failure to meet the normative standards of a valued other. For example, a child who fails to help a distressed sibling may feel shame for failing to meet their parent's expectations or that child may feel guilty knowing that they failed to act on their own moral standards. Tangney (1996) and others (Hoffman, 2000; Kochanska, 1994) posit that guilt most often elicits higher-level moral responding, whereas shame most often mitigates moral responding. Sparse research generally supports a positive link between guilt and prosocial and moral outcomes (Ferguson, Stegge, Miller, & Olsen, 1999; Kochanska, Gross, Lin, & Nichols, 2002; Roberts, Strayer, & Denham, 2014). However, cross-cultural research and other recent research suggest that both guilt and shame can play a prominent role in predicting higher-level moral responding (Carlo, McGinley, Davis, & Streit, 2012; Fung, 1999; Laible, Eye, & Carlo, 2008; Menesini & Camodeca, 2008). Thus, more research is needed to better understand the roles of guilt and shame in moral development.

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