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Moral Dumbfounding

Moral dumbfounding is ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of an [ethical] judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2000, p. 1). By the end of this section you should know what moral dumbfounding is and be familiar with some of the scientific research taken to establish that, and question whether, it occurs.

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Moral dumbfounding is ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt et al., 2000, p. 1).

The most cited evidence for dumbfounding comes from some unpublished (!) research which is presented in the recording (Haidt et al., 2000). This research hinges on two contrasts:

  1. morally provocative but harmless events vs nonmorally provocative but harmless events; and
  2. morally provocative events that are harmless vs morally provocative scenarios involving harm

Examples of morally provocative but harmless events:

‘(Incest) depicts consensual incest between two adult siblings, and […] (Cannibal) depicts a woman cooking and eating a piece of flesh from a human cadaver donated for research to the medical school pathology lab at which she works. These stories were … were carefully written to be harmless’ (Haidt et al., 2000).

An Effect of Cognitive Load?

‘In Study 2 [which is not reported in the draft] we repeated the basic design while exposing half of the subjects to a cognitive load—an attention task that took up some of their conscious mental work space—and found that this load increased the level of moral dumbfounding without changing subjects’ judgments or their level of persuadability’ (Haidt & Bjorklund, 2008, p. 198).

An Attempted Replication

Royzman, Kim, & Leeman (2015) claim to have unsuccessfully replicated the unpublished research on moral dumbfounding:

‘3 of […] 14 individuals [without supporting reasons] disapproved of the siblings having sex and only 1 of 3 (1.9%) maintained his disapproval in the “stubborn and puzzled” manner’ (Royzman et al., 2015, p. 309).

They conclude that

‘a definitionally pristine bout of MD is likely to be a extraordinarily rare find, one featuring a person who doggedly and decisively condemns the very same act that she has no prior normative reasons to dislike’ (Royzman et al., 2015, p. 311).

But your lecturer is unconvinced by this. Haidt et al. (2000)’s method is to compare morally provocative events that are harmless with morally provocative scenarios involving harm.1 Their prediction is that their should be significantly more dumbfounding in the former. Royzman et al. (2015) have not designed an experiment which tests this prediction.

Further, it seems quite easy to elicit moral dumbfounding in everyday life. This is something you should try for yourself.

An Exercise (Probably the Most Fun You Will Have on This Course)

Review the recording above, which includes Isabel’s moral dumbfounding. Pick a morally provocative but harmless event. Find a friend or family member2 who agrees to be interviewed (over zoom or whatever). Ask them to record the interview and post it online (e.g. on youtube).3 Let me have the link. I’ll share the results with the course.


moral dumbfounding : ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of an [ethical] judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt et al., 2000, p. 1).


Dwyer, S. (2009). Moral Dumbfounding and the Linguistic Analogy: Methodological Implications for the Study of Moral Judgment. Mind & Language, 24(3), 274–296.
Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology, Vol 2: The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity (pp. 181–217). Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.
Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.
Royzman, E. B., Kim, K., & Leeman, R. F. (2015). The curious tale of julie and mark: Unraveling the moral dumbfounding effect. Judgment & Decision Making, 10(4).
  1. Compare Haidt et al. (2000): ‘They made the fewest such declarations in Heinz, and they made significantly more such declarations in the Incest story.’ 

  2. Be careful if you’re approaching a stranger; it turns out that some people get upset if you ask them about incest and eating their pets. 

  3. Whatever you do, don’t post a video of someone without written permission from them to do so. It’s probably best to ask them to post the video themselves to avoid any confusion.