We recently encountered an interesting paper by Jeremy A. Blumenthal, “Does Mood Influence Moral Judgment?: An Empirical Test with Legal and Policy Implications” (29 Law and Psychology Review (2005)) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.
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Despite recurring interest in the potential for affect to influence “rational” reasoning, in particular the effect of emotion on moral judgments, legal scholars and social scientists have conducted far less empirical research directly testing such questions than might be expected. Nevertheless, the extent to which affect can influence moral decisions is an important question for the law. Watching a certain sort of movie, for instance, can significantly influence responses to opinion polls conducted shortly after that movie. Legislative action based on public opinion as so expressed, or media reports of public opinion based on such polls, could thus inaccurately reflect that public sentiment. This is especially so for social and policy issues that are heavily emotional, such as capital punishment or affirmative action.
Most discussion on law and emotions has been theoretical, addressing philosophical approaches to law and emotion. What psychological data exist are mixed, and virtually none appears in the legal literature. Thus, to bring the legal academic discussion into the realm of the empirical, and to provide further data on the question of affective influences on moral and legal decision-making, I conducted two experimental studies examining mood’s influence on moral judgments.
After clarifying what I mean by “moral judgment” and how I measured it, I report the methodologies and results of those studies. Briefly, the data support other empirical research showing that individuals in a positive mood (here, happiness) tend to process information more superficially than those in a negative mood (here, anxiety). I then discuss the results’ implications for the legal system, including implications for trials (e.g., victim impact statements or graphic testimony), and implications for public policy-making (e.g., the context of public opinion polls and surveys).
Most broadly, the data contribute to the developing legal literature on the role of emotions in the law. They highlight the importance of conducting empirical research, and of the translation of such empirics to specific legal and policy applications.
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To download the paper for free, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Law, Psychology & Morality - Abstract,” “Situating Emotion,” “The Motivated Situation of Morality,” and “Moral Psychology Primer.”