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An Experimental Investigation of the Impact of Blame Appraisals and Moral Injury Beliefs on Psychological Outcomes

Abstract

Background

Research suggests that appraisals regarding moral violations play an important role in linking trauma exposure with complex psychological responses. There, however, is a need for experimental research to elucidate the causal impact of moral appraisals on psychological outcomes.

Method

This study experimentally investigated the impact on psychological responses (i.e., emotions, intrusions, rumination) of (1) specific blame appraisals in the context of a moral stressor, (2) broad, pre-existing moral beliefs that others (Moral Injury [MI]-Other) or the self (MI-Self) has acted in a way that violates one’s morals, and (3) the interaction between these variables. This study used mental imagery of a motor vehicle accident to simulate a moral stressor. Participants were 108 university students.

Results

Results indicated that blaming oneself resulted in greater guilt, anger and sadness, compared to blaming others. Additionally, participants intrusions were dependent upon interactions between MI-Self beliefs and blame appraisals, with participants who blamed others reporting more intrusive memories if they had High MI-Self beliefs. Furthermore, greater rumination was reported when participants who blamed others but only if both MI-Other and MI-Self beliefs were present.

Conclusions

These results demonstrate the importance of both specific blame appraisals and broad moral beliefs, as potential mechanisms linking exposure to moral violations and psychological outcomes.

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Authors

Contributions

JH and AN contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by JH. The first draft of the manuscript was written by JH. JH and AN read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joel Hoffman.

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Joel Hoffman and Angela Nickerson declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This study was performed in line with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. Approval was granted by the University of New South Wales Human Research Ethics Advisory Panel (3028).

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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The datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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No animal studies were carried out by the authors for this article.

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Hoffman, J., Nickerson, A. An Experimental Investigation of the Impact of Blame Appraisals and Moral Injury Beliefs on Psychological Outcomes. Cogn Ther Res (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-021-10264-y

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Keywords

  • Moral injury
  • PTSD
  • Cognitive appraisals
  • Experimental