Why Are General Moral Values Poor Predictors of Concrete Moral Behavior in Everyday Life? A Conceptual Analysis and Empirical Study

T.G.C. van den Berg, M. Kroesen, C.G. Chorus

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Within moral psychology, theories focusing on the conceptualization and empirical measurement of people’s morality in terms of general moral values –such as Moral Foundation Theory- (implicitly) assume general moral values to be relevant concepts for the explanation and prediction of behavior in everyday life. However, a solid theoretical and empirical foundation for this idea remains work in progress. In this study we explore this relationship between general moral values and daily life behavior through a conceptual analysis and an empirical study. Our conceptual analysis of the moral value-moral behavior relationship suggests that the effect of a generally endorsed moral value on moral behavior is highly context dependent. It requires the manifestation of several phases of moral decision-making, each influenced by many contextual factors. We expect that this renders the empirical relationship between generic moral values and people’s concrete moral behavior indeterminate. Subsequently, we empirically investigate this relationship in three different studies. We relate two different measures of general moral values -the Moral Foundation Questionnaire and the Morality As Cooperation Questionnaire- to a broad set of self-reported morally relevant daily life behaviors (including adherence to COVID-19 measures and participation in voluntary work). Our empirical results are in line with the expectations derived from our conceptual analysis: the considered general moral values are poor predictors of the selected daily life behaviors. Furthermore, moral values that were tailored to the specific context of the behavior showed to be somewhat stronger predictors. Together with the insights derived from our conceptual analysis, this indicates the relevance of the contextual nature of moral decision-making as a possible explanation for the poor predictive value of general moral values. Our findings suggest that the investigation of morality’s influence on behavior by expressing and measuring it in terms of general moral values may need revision.
Original languageEnglish
Article number817860
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • moral values
  • moral decision-making
  • moral behavior
  • Moral Foundation Theory
  • compliance with COVID-19 measures
  • contextual aspects of moral decision-making
  • theory of Morality as Cooperation


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