Intuition versus Reason: Strategies that People Use to Think about Moral Problems


We asked college students to make judgments about realistic moral situations presented as dilemmas (which asked for an either/or decision) vs. problems (which did not ask for such a decision) as well as when the situation explicitly included affectively salient language vs. non-affectively salient language. We report two main findings. The first is that there are four different types of cognitive strategy that subjects use in their responses: simple reasoning, intuitive judging, cautious reasoning, and empathic reasoning. We give operational definitions of these types in terms of our observed data. In addition, the four types characterized strategies not only in the whole sample, but also in all of the subsamples in our study. The second finding is that the intuitive judging type comprised approximately 26% of our respondents, while about 74% of our respondents employed one of the three styles of reasoning named above. We think that these findings present an interesting challenge to models of moral cognition which predict that there is either a single, or a single most common, strategy – especially a strategy of relying upon one’s intuitions – that people use to think about moral situations.

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