Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment

H. Clark Barrett, Alexander Bolyanatz, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Daniel M.T. Fessler, Simon Fitzpatrick, Michael Gurven, Joseph Henrich, Martin Kanovsky, Geoff Kushnick, Anne Pisor, Brooke A. Scelza, Stephen Stich, Chris Von Rueden, Wanying Zhao, Stephen Laurence

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143 Scopus citations


Intent and mitigating circumstances play a central role in moral and legal assessments in large-scale industrialized societies. Although these features of moral assessment are widely assumed to be universal, to date, they have only been studied in a narrow range of societies. We show that there is substantial cross-cultural variation among eight traditional small-scale societies (ranging from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist to horticulturalist) and two Western societies (one urban, one rural) in the extent to which intent and mitigating circumstances influence moral judgments. Although participants in all societies took such factors into account to some degree, they did so to very different extents, varying in both the types of considerations taken into account and the types of violations to which such considerations were applied. The particular patterns of assessment characteristic of large-scale industrialized societies may thus reflect relatively recently culturally evolved norms rather than inherent features of human moral judgment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4688-4693
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number17
StatePublished - Apr 26 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Cognition
  • Culture
  • Human universals
  • Intentions
  • Morality


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