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Tools from moral psychology for measuring personal moral culture


Moral culture can mean many things, but two major elements are a concern with moral goods and moral prohibitions. Moral psychologists have developed instruments for assessing both of these and such measures can be directly imported by sociologists. Work by Schwartz and his colleagues on values offers a well-established way of measuring moral goods, while researchers using Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory have developed validated measures of moral prohibitions. Both values and moral foundations are distributed across the social landscape in systematic, sociologically interesting ways. Although typically measured using questionnaires, we show that values and moral foundations also can be used to analyze interview, archival, or “big data.” Combining psychological and sociological tools and frameworks promises to clarify relations among existing sociological treatments of moral culture and to connect such treatments to a thriving conversation in moral psychology.

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  1. This position does not imply any kind of philosophical moral relativism. It does, however, involve a methodological relativism of the kind advocated by Abend (2008).

  2. This is (intentionally) analogous to the distinctions Zerubavel (1997) makes among cognitive individualism, cognitive universalism, and social cognition.

  3. See for more details.

  4. Quoted verbatim from Haidt and Graham (2009, pp. 111–112). Haidt’s (2012) most recent research suggests there might be a sixth foundation, liberty/oppression, but this has not been well integrated into the measurement yet.

  5. All questionnaires are available at

  6. Unlike with the PVQ-21, it is not necessary here to subtract off the mean score on all items to create the scale. Where tradeoffs are a necessary part of the theory when it comes to values, it is at least theoretically possible for a person to endorse a smaller or larger range of moral prohibitions. At least according to the MFT, moral prohibitions are not a zero-sum affair. This is a question that may require more investigation.

  7. There is no room to elaborate here, but the MFT themes of care, ingroup, and purity also play an essential role in Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men.

  8. For example, in his most recent work, Haidt draws extensively from Durkheim and Christian Smith’s Moral Believing Animals (2003). See Haidt et al. 2009; Haidt 2012.


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Correspondence to Stephen Vaisey.



Portrait Values Questionnaire (21 items)

Now we will briefly describe some people. Please listen to [or read] each description and tell me how much each person is or is not like you. (1 Very much like me; 2 Like me; 3 Somewhat like me; 4 A little like me; 5 Not like me; 6 Not like me at all.)


She/he believes that people should do what they’re told. She/he thinks people should follow rules at all times, even when no-one is watching.

It is important to her/him always to behave properly. She/he wants to avoid doing anything people would say is wrong.


It is important to her/him to be humble and modest. She/he tries not to draw attention to herself/himself.

Tradition is important to her/him. She/he tries to follow the customs handed down by her/his religion or her/his family.


It is important to her/him to be loyal to her/his friends. She/he wants to devote herself/himself to people close to her/him.

It’s very important to her/him to help the people around her/him. She/he wants to care for their well-being.


She/he thinks it is important that every person in the world should be treated equally. She/he believes everyone should have equal opportunities in life.

It is important to her/him to listen to people who are different from her/him. Even when she/he disagrees with them, she/he still wants to understand them.

She/he strongly believes that people should care for nature. Looking after the environment is important to her/him.


Thinking up new ideas and being creative is important to her/him. She/he likes to do things in her/his own original way.

It is important to her/him to make her/his own decisions about what she/he does. She/he likes to be free and not depend on others.


She/he likes surprises and is always looking for new things to do. She/he thinks it is important to do lots of different things in life.

She/he looks for adventures and likes to take risks. She/he wants to have an exciting life.


Having a good time is important to her/him. She/he likes to “spoil” herself/himself.

She/he seeks every chance she/he can to have fun. It is important to her/him to do things that give her/him pleasure.


It’s important to her/him to show her/his abilities. She/he wants people to admire what she/he does.

Being very successful is important to her/him. She/he hopes people will recognise her/his achievements.


It is important to her/him to be rich. She/he wants to have a lot of money and expensive things.

It is important to her/him to get respect from others. She/he wants people to do what she/he says.


It is important to her/him to live in secure surroundings. She/he avoids anything that might endanger her/his safety.

It is important to her/him that the government ensures her/his safety against all threats. She/he wants the state to be strong so it can defend its citizens.

Moral Foundations Questionnaire (20-item version)

Part 1. When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking? Please rate each statement using this scale:

figure a

Part 2. Please read the following sentences and indicate your agreement or disagreement:

figure b

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Vaisey, S., Miles, A. Tools from moral psychology for measuring personal moral culture. Theor Soc 43, 311–332 (2014).

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  • Culture
  • Measurement
  • Moral psychology
  • Morality
  • Values