Interoception, emotional arousal and harm-based moral dilemmas
: (Alternative Format Thesis)

  • Helen Brown

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Moral decisions are some of the most important decisions we make; often resulting in significant consequences for ourselves and others. In circumstances where there is little time for deliberation (Kahneman, 2003) or we are uncertain about the right course of action, we are likely to rely on other forms of emotional and bodily intuition to guide our decision-making or behaviour (Damasio, 1996). There is a wealth of research supporting the relevance of somatic signals for guiding moral decision-making. In particular, in response to moral dilemmas concerning the harm of others, a negative arousal response pattern is associated with inclinations to reject harmful action (e.g. Cushman et al., 2012; Greene et al., 2001). Importantly, the extent to which we perceive and interpret internal sensations varies a great deal between individuals. Interoception is a multi-dimensional concept (Garfinkel & Critchley, 2013) which refers to our perceptual experiences of visceral sensations. There has been no prior empirical research specifically investigating individual differences in interoception in the relationship between emotional arousal and moral decision-making. This PhD thesis explored whether individual differences across a range of interoceptive dimensions influenced moral judgments and actions, and whether this was linked to concurrent visceral events and experiences such as physiological arousal, emotional state or hunger. Cardiac and gastrointestinal measures of interoception were used to understand whether interoceptive sensitivities across these systems were aligned or diverged in their relationship with moral judgment and arousal. Text-based and immersive virtual reality moral dilemmas were used to explore moral judgments and behaviour. We found individual differences in interoceptive sensibility indirectly predicted harm aversion responses to egocentric moral judgments. In contrast, subjective sensations of hunger predicted allocentric judgments of unprofitable harmful acts. Most significantly, we found an ability to consciously direct attention to heartbeats modulated the relationship between changes in physiological arousal and moral judgments and behaviour. Finally, we found that a tendency to worry about painful or unpleasant bodily sensations may predispose people to appraise the harm and suffering of others depicted in coronavirus media articles as more salient; appraisals which predicted socially relevant behavioural intentions during the pandemic.
Date of Award24 Mar 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorDanae Stanton Fraser (Supervisor) & Michael Proulx (Supervisor)


  • interoception
  • moral dilemmas
  • virtual reality
  • emotional arousal
  • moral decision-making
  • moral behaviour

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