How to think about emotion and morality: circles, not arrows

Kurt Gray, Chelsea Schein, C. Daryl Cameron

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Emotion and morality are powerful conscious experiences. There are two ways to think about their psychological basis: arrows and circles. Arrows ground each experience in its own specialized mechanism (mechanism x causes phenomenon x; mechanism y causes phenomenon y). Examples of arrows include when feelings of disgust are attributed to a specialized ‘disgust circuit’ and when judgments of impurity are attributed to a specialized ‘purity foundation.’ In contrast, circles — Venn diagrams — describe experiences as emerging from the overlap of more fundamental domain-general processes (different combinations of processes a, b, c cause both phenomena x and y). Circles are used by constructionist theories of emotion and morality, including the Theory of Dyadic Morality, which grounds moral judgment in the combination of norm violations, negative affect, and perceived harm. Despite the intuitive popularity of arrows, we show that scientific evidence is more consistent with circles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-46
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Opinion in Psychology
StatePublished - Oct 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychology(all)


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