College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Winter 3-22-2024

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Joseph Mikels, PhD

Second Advisor

Linda Camras, PhD

Third Advisor

Verena Graupmann, PhD


Moral judgments and emotional reactions to sociomoral violations are heavily impacted by a perpetrator’s intentions, as malicious intent poses a threat to social harmony. Given that older adults are more motivated to maintain interpersonal harmony relative to younger adults, older adults may be more reactive to malicious intentions. In five studies, I investigated adult age differences in moral judgments and emotional reactions to sociomoral violations. In Studies 1-3, participants read scenarios in which a perpetrator either (a) desired to harm another but nothing happened, or (b) harmed another accidentally without malicious intent. Study 2 incorporated additional scenarios designed to evoke anger and disgust without explicitly implicating another person with the goal of evaluating whether age differences emerge only when sociomoral violations against another are salient. Study 3 examined the combined effects of malicious intent and harmful outcomes by including scenarios in which (a) harmful intentions were coupled with harmful outcomes, and (b) benign intentions were coupled with benign outcomes. Across the first three studies, older adults judged perpetrators who intentionally harmed another more harshly but judged perpetrators who accidentally harmed another more leniently than younger adults. Emotional reactions generally corresponded with the differences in judgments. The findings from Studies 1-3 suggested that malicious intentions more strongly impact older relative to younger adults’ judgments and emotional reactions in sociomoral contexts. Studies 4 and 5 built on the previous three studies by introducing a new factor of interest: the relational closeness of the perpetrator. In Study 4, participants read scenarios in which a perpetrator who is a stranger or a close other either intentionally or accidentally harmed another. In Study 5, participants read the same scenarios, but they were placed on the receiving end of the sociomoral violation. In Study 4, older relative to younger adults reported harsher act judgments and higher anger ratings for intentional harms. For unintentional harms, older adults reported harsher act judgments but comparable anger ratings relative to younger adults. Converging with the findings from the previous four studies, Study 5 found that older adults reported significantly more lenient moral judgments, less negativity, and higher prosocial intentions toward perpetrators who hypothetically harmed them unintentionally compared to younger adults. Conversely, for perpetrators who harmed them intentionally, older adults were only significantly harsher than younger adults in their person judgments. This work, taken together, provides a deeper understanding of how the intentionality of sociomoral violations and the closeness of those committing those sociomoral violations differentially influence older and younger adults’ moral judgements and emotional reactions.

SLP Collection


Included in

Psychology Commons