When Good and Evil Feel Real: Psychology of “Moral Vitalism”


A few years ago, I got swept up in the TV show, Carnivàle [1]As with most great TV, it was cancelled way too early.. What struck me about the show was its mystical representation of good and evil. It was as if they were distinct characters in the drama, entities unto themselves.

Do you ever feel like good and evil are real forces that can act upon people and events? If so, psychologists would say that you have a belief in “moral vitalism.”  When someone has moral vitalism beliefs, it means that he or she believes that “good” and “evil” are forces that exist and can cause moral and immoral things to happen.

This is similar to other forms of magical thinking. For example, people are hesitant to wear a sweater that was worn for only a few moments by someone they consider “evil.” This aversion isn’t that different than when the sweater is described as unworn but having come in brief contact with dog poo.

(For more fun examples of this kind of magical thinking, check out Bruce Hood’s great book, SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable)

Who Believes in Moral Vitalism?

New research in moral psychology by Brock Bastian and his colleagues has taken to measuring these beliefs in people. To do so, they develop five key questions to uncover how strongly a person holds this belief. Are you a moral vitalist? Ask yourself how much you agree with the following statements:

  1. There are underlying forces of good and evil in this world.
  2. Either the forces of good or the forces of evil are responsible for most of the events in the world today.
  3. The forces of good and evil often motivate human behavior.
  4. People need to be aware of the good and evil that are in this world today.
  5. Good and evil are aspects of the natural world.

Overall, some people strongly agree with these questions, some people strongly disagree with all of them, and plenty of people hover somewhere along the middle of the continuum. In general, though, people who agree with these statements most strongly tend to be relatively religious and conservative and also tend to think less analytically. However, these are, of course, far from perfect correlations.

Would You Eat a Child Molester’s Cookie?

Now that we know that people vary in how much they believe in moral vitalism, we should ask whether this even matters. How do these beliefs guide people’s decisions?

cookies-448362_1280To answer that question, the researchers turned to contagion. I mentioned earlier that people don’t like the idea of wearing an evil person’s sweater even if they know it’s been thoroughly washed. After all, if I (for no reason I can imagine) happened to have a sweater once owned by Adolf Hitler, would you wear it?

Rather than Hitler’s wardrobe, these researchers turned to a different decision: eating grocery store products. They asked a bunch of people to rate how disgusting it would be to eat an apple and a cookie under a variety of circumstances.

In the most innocuous scenario, people imagined the experience of eating these items under normal conditions. Then they rated the experience of eating these items after they’d been dropped on the floor.

Finally, they were asked to rate the experience of eating these items if (a) they’d been recovered from a thief and (b) if they’d been recovered from a convicted child molester’s shopping basket.

Rationally, of course, it shouldn’t matter who had a wrapped cookie in their possession, but people who held a stronger belief in moral vitalism found the notion of eating thief-manipulated and child molester-handled cookies and apples especially disgusting.

Putting it Together

Other studies reported by Bastian and collegaues showed that moral vitalism was related to concern about spiritual possession and keeping oneself mentally pure. Clearly, these beliefs are powerfully related to how people think about and engage with the everyday world.

Are you or is someone you know a moral vitalist? Let us know in the comments!

This post is part of New Research Friday: Each Friday, we aim to bring new research in social psychology to the blog, highlighting information revealed in studies that have only recently been published.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. As with most great TV, it was cancelled way too early.

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