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Mobayed, T.; Sanders, J. Moral Foundational Theory and Framing. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 24 June 2024).
Mobayed T, Sanders J. Moral Foundational Theory and Framing. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 24, 2024.
Mobayed, Tamim, Jet Sanders. "Moral Foundational Theory and Framing" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 24, 2024).
Mobayed, T., & Sanders, J. (2022, May 27). Moral Foundational Theory and Framing. In Encyclopedia.
Mobayed, Tamim and Jet Sanders. "Moral Foundational Theory and Framing." Encyclopedia. Web. 27 May, 2022.
Moral Foundational Theory and Framing

Framing grew from Prospect Theory: this theory centres on the finding that “decisions taken by individuals can be altered by presenting information in logically equivalent but semantically different ways”. Moral Foundational Framing is a specific form of framing that seeks to marry Moral Foundations Theory with framing. To this end, frames are laden with words that evoke certain moral foundations. 

moral foundations theory framing moral foundational framing behaviour change

1. Framing

Framing grew from Prospect Theory; this theory centers on the finding that “decisions taken by individuals can be altered by presenting information in logically equivalent but semantically different ways” ([1], p. 5). Researchers have found a significant relationship between the way in which information was presented and how it would be weighed by individuals. Framing can be described as a pointed packaging of information that might draw emphasis to one (or certain) aspect(s) of it; crucially, it does not result in any factual changes to the information.
In politicized decision contexts, Druckman and McDermott identify two key deviations by way of emotions and susceptibility to the framing effect [2]; different emotions, both deemed negative, e.g., anger and distress, can lead to differential impacts of framing. The same researchers identified emotions as one potential way to moderate the framing effect. Ref. [3] used conflicting elite discourse to see if it could reduce the impact of the framing effect, with mixed success. Researchers at Stanford University [4] deployed framing to tackle a phenomenon researchers call the ‘progressive paradox’, wherein individuals favour a more egalitarian society yet readily vote against candidates who seek to realize that goal at the ballot box. This built on previous research, such as Feygina, Goldsmith and Jost [5] who reported that they could increase support for environmental policies if they were framed in terms of preserving American traditions.

2. Moral Foundations Theory

One common approach to framing in these politicized contexts [4][5] is by means of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) [6]. MFT attempts to formulate a comprehensive theory of human morality, identifying moral values that extend across cultures. By examining a range of cultures, with theoretical foundations in social psychology and anthropology, they extract five (or six [7]) universal moral dimensions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation, which can be found within all cultures, to varying intensities and differential manifestations (the proposed sixth moral is liberty/oppression). In this research, researchers look at the effect of four of these frames: care, fairness, loyalty or sanctity. Authority was deselected due to both resource constraints and expectations it would not be influential (though this exclusion proved to be erroneous: statistical analyses on data collected through this research found strong, significant relationships between the moral of authority and some of the outcome measures). Each of the five foundations is rooted in evolutionary benefit, which outlines below.

2.1. Care/Harm

This evolutionarily important value is prominent across different mammals, one form of which is embodied by a mother’s care for her offspring; the development of expressions of care is often socially driven by the propagation of normative ideals. While the biopsychological hardware for this foundation might be similar between humans and societies, its manifestation varies greatly. Compare the expression of care/harm in Ancient Spartan society with that of contemporary California.

2.2. Fairness/Cheating

Fairness/Cheating is linked to the notion of reciprocal altruism, where one individual (temporarily) sacrifices for another unrelated individual. Fairness is derived from overarching reciprocal benefit, following the initial cost. Sensitivity to fairness is universal [8] and observed early in human development (before the age of five, and possibly before the age of one).

2.3. Loyalty/Betrayal

Loyalty is defined as strong feelings of allegiance toward a person or group and is equally foundational. Both chimps and humans have been found to group together and initiate conflicts with other groups for territory, with humans having intensified this ability due to the development of ‘language, weapons, and tribal markers’ ([6] p. 70). These predispositions towards loyalty were famously activated in Sherif’s [9] seminal study that took a group of schoolboys on a camping trip, divided them into groups and had them face off against each other in competitions; they exhibited commitment to in-group members and stark hostility towards ‘the other’. Indeed, in-group loyalty is often associated with hostile attitudes towards out-group members [10].

2.4. Authority/Subversion

Dominance hierarchies are seen in many animals, especially larger mammals. Within human beings, social hierarchies vary greatly from culture to culture and might include patriarchy or matriarchy as defining features. Within modern nation states, various cultures might exist (and coexist); liberals might deem obedience to authority as a vice while conservatives champion it as a virtue [11].

2.5. Sanctity/Degradation

Sanctity and degradation are related to the immune system, physiological aversion and disgust. The evolutionary advantages of this system are great: parasites, bacteria and viruses pose significant threats to the collective survival. Revulsion keeps these (where possible) out of the food, bodies and societies [12]. This system also impacted the social world; “Disgust and the behavioral immune system have come to undergird a variety of moral reactions, for example, to immigrants and sexual deviants” ([6], p. 71).

3. Moral Foundational Framing

Moral Foundational Framing marries Moral Foundations Theory [6] with framing. This form of framing has successfully been deployed in contexts including attitudes toward the environmental [5] and fiscal policy [4]. Nath et al. [13] applied Moral Foundational framing to immigrant contexts, focusing on the differences between individualizing and binding (The individualizing morals are care/harm and fairness/cheating; the binding morals are loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation) morals and the way in which these moral groupings predict attitudes. Their experiments successfully applied this form of framing to influence stated attitudes regarding immigration to the USA. Kaufman [14] successfully applied moral framing, showing that reframing discussions around migration could lessen it as a concern. Researchers at Stanford University [4] deployed framing to tackle a phenomenon researchers call the ‘progressive paradox’, wherein individuals favour a more egalitarian society yet readily vote against candidates who seek to realize that goal at the ballot box. This built on previous research, such as Feygina, Goldsmith and Jost [5] who reported that they could increase support for environmental policies if they were framed in terms of preserving American traditions, thus utilising typically Right-wing frames to target a policy area that tends to be a concern of those on the Left. 
However, most research did not consider how these attitudinal shifts respond to behaviour [1][15]. Grigorieff, Roth and Ubfal [16] found that while certain morally aligned frames changed attitudes, critically, they did not observe behaviourally-inclined changes, such as in decisions made about policy or resource distribution. Researchers attempted to supplement the examination of attitudes by measures approximating pro-refugee behaviours in the real world by asking participants to sign a petition either in favour or against increasing the number of refugees in the UK and inviting them to donate 20% of their experimental earnings to a refugee charity.
Another missing element from the body of literature is the notion of personalization. Studies tend to focus on identifying which one frame may function more effectively than another, or which group responds most to a certain frame. However, increasingly, this one-size-fits-all perspective is being replaced by a more tailored approach [17]. Attempting to understand how moral foundational underpinning might influence individual-level responses is key to the impact of any informational campaign, or behaviour change focused interventions. 


  1. Lecheler, S.; De Vreese, C.H. How Long Do News Framing Effects Last? A Systematic review of Longitudinal Studies. Ann. Int. Commun. Assoc. 2016, 40, 3–30.
  2. Druckman, J.N.; McDermott, R. Emotion and the Framing of Risky Choice. Politics Behav. 2008, 30, 297–321.
  3. Druckman, J.N.; Nelson, K.R. Framing and Deliberation: How Citizens’ Conversations Limit Elite Influence. Am. J. Politics Sci. 2003, 47, 729–745.
  4. Voelkel, J.G.; Willer, R. Resolving the Progressive Paradox: Conservative Value Framing of Progressive Economic Policies Increases Candidate Support. 2019. Available online: (accessed on 10 June 2020).
  5. Feygina, I.; Jost, J.T.; Goldsmith, R.E. System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of “System-Sanctioned Change”. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 2009, 36, 326–338.
  6. Graham, J.; Haidt, J.; Koleva, S.; Motyl, M.; Iyer, R.; Wojcik, S.; Ditto, P. Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 2013, 47, 55–130.
  7. Iyer, R.; Koleva, S.; Graham, J.; Ditto, P.; Haidt, J. Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 2012, 7, e42366.
  8. Fisk, K. Refugee Geography and the Diffusion of Armed Conflict in Africa. Civ. Wars 2014, 16, 255–275.
  9. Sherif, M. Experimental Study of Positive and Negative Intergroup Attitudes between Experimentally Produced Groups: Robbers Cave Study; University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK, USA, 1954.
  10. Yitmen, Ş.; Verkuyten, M. Feelings toward refugees and non-Muslims in Turkey: The roles of national and religious identifications, and multiculturalism. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 2017, 48, 90–100.
  11. Haidt, J.; Graham, J.; Joseph, C. Above and Below Left–Right: Ideological Narratives and Moral Foundations. Psychol. Inq. 2009, 20, 110–119.
  12. Thornhill, R.; Fincher, C.L. The Parasite-Stress Theory of Values and Sociality: Infectious Disease, History and Human Values Worldwide; Springer: Berlin/Heidelberg, Germany, 2014.
  13. Nath, L.; Pedriana, N.; Gifford, C.; Mcauley, J.W.; Fülöp, M. Examining Moral Foundations Theory through Immigration Attitudes. Athens J. Soc. Sci. 2022, 9, 9–30.
  14. Kaufmann, E. Assimilation and the Immigration Debate: Shifting People’s Attitudes. The London School of Economics and Political Science. 2016. Available online: (accessed on 10 June 2020).
  15. Captari, L.E.; Shannonhouse, L.; Hook, J.N.; Aten, J.D.; Davis, E.B.; Davis, D.E.; Van Tongeren, D.; Hook, J.R. Prejudicial and Welcoming Attitudes toward Syrian Refugees: The Roles of Cultural Humility and Moral Foundations. J. Psychol. Theol. 2019, 47, 123–139.
  16. Grigorieff, A.; ROTH, C.; Ubfal, D. Does Information Change Attitudes Towards Immigrants? Representative Evidence from Survey Experiments. SSRN Electron. J. 2016.
  17. Bryan, C.J.; Tipton, E.; Yeager, D.S. Behavioural science is unlikely to change the world without a heterogeneity revolution. Nat. Hum. Behav. 2021, 5, 980–989.
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