The moral pop-out effect: Enhanced perceptual awareness of morally relevant stimuli

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Description: Every day people perceive religious and moral iconography in ambiguous objects, ranging from grilled cheese to bird feces. In the current research, we examined whether moral concerns can shape awareness of perceptually ambiguous stimuli. In three experiments, we presented masked moral and non-moral words around the threshold for conscious awareness as part of a lexical decision task. Participants correctly identified moral words more frequently than non-moral words—a phenomenon we term the moral pop-out effect. The moral pop-out effect was only evident when stimuli were presented at durations that made them perceptually ambiguous, but not when the stimuli were presented too quickly to perceive or slowly enough to easily perceive. The moral pop-out effect was not moderated by exposure to harm and cannot be explained by differences in arousal, valence, or extremity. Although most models of moral psychology presume the perception of moral stimuli, our research suggests that perceptual factors, such as ambiguity, may play a role in moral judgment and decision-making.

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