Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



First Adviser

Packer, Dominic

Other advisers/committee members

Van Bavel, Jay; Gill, Michael; Burke, Christopher


The moral identity literature has focused on self-consistency motives as a primary explanation for why people with strong moral identities tend to behave in ways consistent with their values. In the current research, I seek to extend the literature beyond self-consistency, and propose an additional type of motivation that may also drive moral behavior: moral self-improvement, or ideal-oriented goals. Drawing from a diverse range of literatures (e.g., regulatory focus, self-discrepancy, proscriptive and prescriptive morality, and self-determination theory), I propose two broad moral orientations that may shape people’s moral thoughts and behaviors. I further suggest that these two moral orientations will predict important differences in terms of affective and behavioral patterns. In particular, I propose that an ought moral orientation focuses an individual on maintaining their moral self by avoiding the failure of moral duties and obligations (primarily driven by the fear of becoming a worse person) (H1). Due to its prevention type focus, a moral ought orientation is predicted to lead to more active, negative emotions for moral failure, and more passive, positive emotions for moral success (H2 and H3). In contrast, an ideal moral orientation is posited to focus an individual on improving their moral self by approaching the achievement of moral ideals and aspirations (primarily driven by the uplifting prospect of becoming a better person) (H1). Due to its promotion type focus, a moral ideal orientation is predicted to lead to more passive, negative emotions for moral failure, and more active, positive emotions for moral success (H2 and H3). Because ought and ideal orientations are posited to correspond with prevention and promotion foci, I also anticipate that the framing of a prosocial behavior (e.g., as approaching gains vs. avoiding losses) may produce fit effects, potentially enhancing its perceived value for individuals with the corresponding motivational orientation (H4). In addition, because an ideal orientation focuses a person on moral aspirations (i.e., things that are encouraged, but not required) rather than moral duties or necessities (as is the focus for ought orientations), ideal-oriented individuals are predicted to experience more intrinsic motivation when engaging in prosocial behaviors. This intrinsic motivation, is predicted to underlie the active and energizing emotions for moral achievement, and these energizing feelings are further predicted to increase motivation to engage in subsequent prosocial opportunities (H4). Studies 1 and 2 examined the association between the hypothesized moral orientations and related constructs, and also looked at the differences in affective experiences for ought and ideal orientations. Supporting H1, Study 1 found that the two moral orientations were distinctly associated with different self-motives, regulatory foci, and loci of motivation. In support of H2 and H3, Studies 1 and 2 found that moral ideal orientation predicted positive feelings for moral success and moral ought orientation predicted negative feelings for moral failure. Study 3 tested for fit effects between the proposed moral orientations and how a given moral behavior is construed, by framing a prosocial request in promotion vs. prevention-focused terms. Study 3 largely failed to support the predicted fit effects of H4, however, Study 3 did find that ideal orientation uniquely predicted donations to a charity (supporting a different prediction of H4). Study 4 attempted to experimentally manipulate ought vs. ideal moral orientations, and tested for their impact on prosocial seeking behavior. While the manipulation did not exert significant effects, Study 4 found correlational support for two of the predictions of H4 using individual difference scores of moral orientation. Specifically, ideal orientation uniquely predicted the number of prosocial websites participants chose to view, and ought orientation uniquely and negatively predicted time spent browsing the prosocial websites. Finally, Study 5 examined the influence of the two moral orientations on behaviors at a broader level (e.g., support for different types of social policies). While moral ought orientation did not predict support for a policy that would hinder prosocial solicitations, Study 5 found that ought orientation did predict feelings of general discomfort and threat from prosocial solicitations (supporting H4).

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