This project explores moral attitudes, decisions, and judgments about regular use of stimulants (both illegal and prescription, such as Ritalin and Adderall) used therapeutically, recreationally, or as cognitive enhancers. Questions to be explored include: How different are the moral judgments of users and non-users? Do differences in moral judgments explain why some people use and others do not? Are these moral judgments based on harm to self or others or, instead, on fairness or disgust at perceived impurity or unnaturalness? Does the basis of these judgments vary between users and non-users? The project will construct and administer surveys to Duke students and to the general population. These surveys will attempt to clarify whether and how people distinguish heavy use, dependence, and addiction, when they view such use as morally wrong or bad, and whether they hold stimulant users responsible for any harms they cause.  Students will learn to assess such attitudes through web-based questionnaires and tests of implicit moral attitudes (e.g., Implicit Association Test). This project is a funded jointly by KIE and Bass Connections.

A public symposium on the team’s research will be held in Spring 2015. Details to come.

Bass Connections theme: Brain & Society
KIE program connection: Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making


The Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making Laboratory employs a network of interdisciplinary researchers from undergraduates to tenured faculty, including international visiting scholars. The research teams employ various methods, such as surveys, fMRI scans, behavioral studies, and eye-tracking, to examine moral decision-making. Topics include intellectual humility, scrupulosity, stimulant addiction, propaganda and genocide, sexual risk taking, the influence of language on decision-making, and more.

Complete list of projects and researchers

  • Implicit Moral Attitudes (using a Process Dissociation Procedure, an Affect Misattribution Procedure, and an Implicit Association Test): Joey Heffner (Research Assistant, KIE and DIBS), Daryl Cameron (Faculty, Psychology, University of Iowa), Keith Payne (Faculty, Psychology, UNC), Brendan Caldwell (Mind Research Network), Jana Schaich Borg (Post-Doctoral Fellow, Psychiatry), Joseph Paxton (Post-doctoral Fellow, Neuroscience), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy). Funded by an Incubator Award through Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.
  • Attention and Moral Judgment (using eye-tracking): Nina Strohminger (Post-Doctoral Fellow, KIE), Felipe DeBrigard (Faculty, Philosophy and DIBS), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy)
  • Scrupulosity: Obsession with Morality (survey and planned patient research): Jesse Summers (Post-Doctoral Fellow, Philosophy), Christine Lillie (Post-doctoral Fellow, Law and Psychology), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy)
  • Humility and Conformity in Moral Judgments (survey and fMRI): Lawrence Ngo (Medicine), Meagan Kelly (Medical Student, University of Florida), Scott Huettel (KIE Senior Fellow, Faculty, Psychology & Neuroscience), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy). This project centers on the interaction between confidence and conformity. We are interested in the manner in which different persuasion techniques affect how individuals adopt, abandon, and transmit moral beliefs in the face of disagreement. Funded by the Templeton Foundation.
  • Intellectual Humility and Legal Biases (survey and fMRI):  Christine Lillie (Post-doctoral Fellow, Law and Psychology) and Phil Costanzo (KIE Senior Fellow, Faculty, Psychology & Neuroscience). This project seeks to assess the limitations and function of intellectual humility in the judicial system and develop strategies to encourage intellectual humility, thereby reducing erroneous decisions to prosecute and subsequent wrongful convictions. We use a multi-stage method, first developing and validating a measure of intellectual humility; second, using our scale in applied research to investigate the influence of legal roles on intellectual humility and the interaction of role and personality disposition, and; third, further refining our findings using fMRI imaging data exploring brain correlates of intellectual humility.
  • Propaganda in Genocide (behavioral, qualitative, and physiological studies): Christine Lillie (Post-doctoral Fellow, Law and Psychology). Which types of genocide propaganda affect the moral justification of violence? This research has potentially important implications for genocide law and early intervention policies and was presented at the United Nations.
  • Pattern Ascription and Morality (Behavioral studies and fMRI):  Clara Colombatto (lab manager), Joseph Paxton (Post-doctoral Fellow, Neuroscience), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy). We are developing a novel test for individual differences in ascribing patterns in order to study religious belief and jury convictions for intentional crimes.
  • Intentions vs Side-Effects (survey and fMRI): Lawrence Ngo (Medicine), Meagan Kelly (Medical Student, University of Florida), Scott Huettel (KIE Senior Fellow, Faculty, Psychology & Neuroscience), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy)
  • Influences of Moral Judgment on Politics (survey and fMRI): Scott Clifford (Faculty, University of Houston), Vijeth Iyengar (Graduate Student, Psychology and Neuroscience), Eleanor Hanna (Graduate Student, Neuroscience), Roberto Cabeza (Faculty, Psychology & Neuroscience), Scott Huettel (KIE Senior Fellow, Faculty, Psychology & Neuroscience), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy)
  • Sexual Risk Taking and Moral Identity (survey): Elizabeth Victor and Cameron Hopkin (Graduate Students, Psychology & Neuroscience), Robert Thomson (Professor, Psychology & Neuroscience), Phil Constanzo (KIE Senior Fellow, Faculty, Psychology & Neuroscience), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy). This study collects data from college undergraduates and Amazon Mechanical Turk users to determine the relationship between moral identity and sexual risk behavior above and beyond previous psychosocial and personality predictor variables (e.g. sensation seeking, impulsivity, rejection sensitivity, etc.). This study is one of hopefully a series that will support an expansion of previous research in moral regulation by applying moral identity to self-regulation theories, especially regulatory focus. More specifically, this research is investigating how moral identity, a specific construct of morality that joins moral judgment and moral action, can be used as a regulatory process for positive health promotion and health risk prevention.
  • The Influence of Moral Language on Moral Choices (surveys): Tomasso Bruni (former Post-Doctoral Researcher, Kenan Institute for Ethics) and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy). How does the wording of the question affect moral judgments? In particular, if we ask, “Does the action described in the scenario violate someone’s rights?”, does this question make participants more likely to endorse deontological responses? In contrast, if we ask, “Is the action described in the scenario the best in this context?”, does this question make participants more likely to think like a consequentialist?
  • Does Ought Imply Can? (surveys): Vlad Chituc (research assistant), Paul Henne (Philosophy, Graduate Student), Felipe DeBrigard (Faculty, Philosophy and DIBS), and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Faculty, KIE and Philosophy)
  • Causation by Omission and Norms: Paul Henne (Philosophy Graduate Student) with Angel Pinillos (Professor of Philosophy, Arizona State University)
  • Evolution and Morality (philosophical research): Aaron Ancell, Philosophy Graduate Student
  • Moral Virtues (philosophical research): Lauren Bunch, Philosophy Graduate Student

In addition to meeting regularly to discuss ongoing research, the lab is hosting and participating in several events and conferences, including:

  • Research Retreat: Sep. 20-21, with special guest Molly Crocket


The Duke University Honor Council is charged with informing the Duke community about the meaning of the Duke Community Standard and promoting honor, integrity, and ethical behavior in university life. The Honor Council is supported by Trinity College, the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Office of Student Affairs.

The Honor Council is composed of approximately twenty-five undergraduates from all four classes. Students are chosen annually through an established application and interview process. Students remain on the Council through their graduation. Faculty members and administrators also provide support to the Council in various ways – many of the programmatic avenues taken by the Council are done taken in concert with faculty. In the past, the Honor Council has sponsored a variety of activities including but not limited to: freshman orientation to the Duke Community Standard and the judicial system; dormitory discussions on academic integrity; university-wide symposia featuring leading thinkers on ethics; administrative lobbying on honor and judicial issues; surveys gauging the status of academic integrity at Duke; and town hall meetings to establish dialogue on issues of honor at the University. The Honor Council does not adjudicate cases of academic dishonesty. Students who violate the Duke Community Standard are referred to the Duke Undergraduate Judicial Board, a distinct entity.


Events held throughout the academic year, including guest speakers and informal chats with Duke faculty, are updated on the Honor Council’s Facebook page.


Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making 2013-2014 Events

  • Daniel Batson and Brian Hare debate “Are Humans Ever Altruistic?” Sep. 5
  • MADLAB researchers weekend retreat in early September
  • On September 11, Alan Alda led a panel discussion about neuroscience and the law with professors Nita Farahany, Scott Huettel, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ahmad Hariri, in preparation for the PBS series Brains on Trial.
  • Guest speakers included:
    • Julian Savulescu (Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford): October 25, 3:30-5:30 pm.
    • Daniel Dennett (Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University): February 6, 4:00-5:00 pm.