The moral pop-out effect: Enhanced perceptual awareness of morally relevant stimuli

Ana P. Gantman, Jay J. Van Bavel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


People perceive religious and moral iconography in ambiguous objects, ranging from grilled cheese to bird feces. In the current research, we examined whether moral concerns can shape awareness of perceptually ambiguous stimuli. In three experiments, we presented masked moral and non-moral words around the threshold for conscious awareness as part of a lexical decision task. Participants correctly identified moral words more frequently than non-moral words-a phenomenon we term the moral pop- out effect. The moral pop-out effect was only evident when stimuli were presented at durations that made them perceptually ambiguous, but not when the stimuli were presented too quickly to perceive or slowly enough to easily perceive. The moral pop- out effect was not moderated by exposure to harm and cannot be explained by differences in arousal, valence, or extremity. Although most models of moral psychology assume the initial perception of moral stimuli, our research suggests that moral beliefs and values may shape perceptual awareness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)22-29
Number of pages8
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Ambiguity
  • Awareness
  • Morality
  • Perception
  • Vision

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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