Endorsing and acting upon one’s moral concern for justice and equality is shaped by who we are talking about and how we feel about them, as opposed to being a universal principle derived from logic or rationality. Our past work suggests that justice is fundamentally groupish (Janoff-Bulman & Carnes, 2013). Recently, we demonstrate a bidirectional relationship between feelings of interdependence and support for social justice (Carnes & Varnam, In Preparation), providing a psychological mechanism for why mass mobilization during the world wars spurred support for progressive public policies around taxation and social welfare in the 20th century.


The evolutionary function of morality is to make cooperative group life possible so that humans can reap the benefits of sociality. Our past work suggests that people employ different models of morality across social contexts because each poses a different kind of adaptive problem (Carnes, Lickel, & Janoff-Bulman, 2015), and that one of the functions morality serves is to bind groups together (Carnes & Lickel, 2018). More recently, we demonstrate that morality functions to signal the inner character of agents, benefit the welfare of recipients, bind groups together, and teach social partners how to behave (Carnes, Allmon, Alva, Cousar, & Varnam, Under Review).


People fight and die for a given cause because they feel morally obligated to protect something of intrinsic value, not because of strategic or self-interested considerations. Our past work suggests that moral principles involving hierarchy/deference and generosity/benevolence help bind people into tight-knit groups that will fight and die for one another (Carnes & Lickel, 2018), and that morality may make individuals less violent but groups more violent (Cousar, Carnes & Kimel, In Press). We are currently investigating how identity moralization (Cousar, Frierson, & Carnes, In Preparation) and moralistic judgment (Cousar & Carnes, In Preparation) can escalate violent intergroup conflict.


Our moral psychology can help us understand why our society is deeply polarized, losing faith in democracy, and seemingly incapable of addressing a growing list of systemic problems affecting our health, wealth, and well-being. Our past work documents the ways in which political liberals and conservatives hold different but perhaps complementary moral beliefs (e.g., Janoff-Bulman & Carnes, 2016). We are currently investigating how our moral cognition makes it seem intuitively impossible that members of self-relevant groups (e.g. political parties) could do something immoral (Varnam & Carnes, In Preparation), and how social dominance prevents us from recognizing institutional corruption (Frierson & Carnes, In Preparation).

Want to learn more about our research projects? Or interested in joining the lab?
Email the Lab Manager, Sydney Frierson, at



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