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Unravelling the moral self

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MORALSELF (Unravelling the moral self)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

Our self-concept is closely tied to morality. We perceive ourselves as morally good or bad, and this is a central aspect of our identity.
This project focuses on the development of the moral self-concept, that is, the degree to which it is important for humans to be a morally good person. In particular, the early emergence, the functional mechanisms, and the neurocognitive correlates of the moral self are examined. We study when children start considering themselves as moral person, and how this influences prosocial behaviors such as sharing, helping and consoling. One focus of the project is on the role of emotions in the moral self-concept.
The project has societal implications as it helps us to obtain a clearer picture of what constitutes human morality and as it reveals the psychological mechanisms that motivate people to behave prosocially.
The project consists of several work packages (WP). WP 1 examines the development of the moral self-concept in early childhood. WP 2 explores the emotional antecedents and correlates of the moral self-concept in children and adults. WP 3 investigates the neural and physiological correlates of the moral self-concept. WP4 explores the developmental precursors of the emerging moral self-concept. WP5 aims at integrating the findings in a theoretical framework. The details of WP 1-4 will be described below.
Within WP 1, we investigated the internal structure of the moral self-concept and its relation to prosocial behavior (i.e. helping, sharing, consoling) in preschool children. The main results are that already in preschool age the moral self-concept is distinct from other aspect of the self-concept (e.g. the academic self) and that it predicts children’s prosocial behavior. Currently, we explore the stability of children’s moral self-concept in a longitudinal study.
In WP 2, we investigated whether emotional consequences of prosocial behavior mediate the relation between the moral self and behavior. That is, whether the positive feelings resulting from prosocial action relate the moral self to prosocial action. This was not the case, neither in adults or children. This result was supported across a number of studies. We are currently investigating the role of anticipated emotions and guilt, in particular.
In WP 3, we used electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate how the moral self-concept relates to perceiving moral content in visual scenes. The first study was done with adults and has already been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Doi: 10.1093/scan/nsz016). We are currently extending this design in order to investigate children both with EEG and eye tracking/pupillometry. We are also conducting a study using combined EEG and fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) to investigate how the moral self modulates the neurocognitive processes involved in charitable decisions.
WP 4 constitutes an ongoing longitudinal study in which we explore the developmental precursors of the emerging moral self-concept.
This project is the first to investigate the early emergence and the internal structure of the moral-self concept in the preschool years. Moreover, it enters novel grounds by examining the neural and cognitive mechanisms that relate the moral self concept to prosocial behavior. By the end of the project, we expect to have a full picture of the developmental trajectory, psychological mechanisms and neural correlates of the moral self-concept.