Morality and Media @ MSU Sept 15-16

This weekend MSU ComArts will host the 2nd annual workshop on morality and media. This year we are focusing on “Problems and Possibilities.” Agenda and talk abstracts below. If you are interested in joining, please RSVP to edenalli@msu(dot)edu before September 15, 2017.

Date: September 16, 2017
Location: CAS 182

Time Title of Session Speaker
10:00 – 11:00 Introduction to some Problems & Possibilities in Studying Media and Morality Allison Eden (MSU)
11:00 – 11:30 A Moral Crossroads at the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex? Mark Reimers (MSU)
11:30 – 12:00 Morality as an Emotional Demand Nick Bowman (WVU)
12:00-1:00 Lunch
1:00-1:30 Retribution Level and Narrative Liking Matthew Grizzard (UB)
1:30-2:00 Refining the Moral Disengagement Construct Nic Matthews (OSU)
2:00-2:30 Challenging ADT? Ron Tamborini (MSU)
3:00-3:30 The Problem of Purity Brian Klebig (MSU)
3:30-4:00 The Morality of Political Talk Lindsay Hahn (MSU)
4:00-4:30 Perceived Moral Agency and Trust in Social Machines Jaime Banks (WVU)
4:30-5:00 Sequential Moral Decision-Making in Video Games Kevin Kryston (MSU)
Mark Reimers: A Moral Crossroads at the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex?

The two brain regions that appear most differentially activated over a variety of moral situations are the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). The two regions are nearby and strongly connected. The amygdala is one of the oldest and best-studied regions in the mammal brain, while the vmPFC is relatively new, poorly understood, and is one of the few brain regions that differentially expanded relative to others in our human lineage. I will discuss the evolutionary evidence, and some functional and connectivity studies to shed light on this enigmatic region.

 Nick Bowman: Morality as an Emotional Demand

Moral foundations theory has been applied to understand the decisions that gamers make when playing video games—work has shown that players do tend to make initial decisions more or less in-line with intuitive moral sensitivities (avoiding the violation of and withholding the same). However, such work has been more outcome- rather than process-oriented, focusing on resultant choices rather than the mechanisms of those choices. My aim is to specify the associative (and potentially, causal) relationship between increased moral sensitivity and increased emotional demand, which should provide greater explanatory and predictive power to player psychology models. 

Matthew Grizzard: Retribution Level and Narrative Liking

The current data examine how individuals appraise different types of retribution within short narratives.  Retribution occurs when a character wronged by another inflicts punishment upon the character who wronged him/her. Specifically, the data discussed are derived from a study which modifies the narrative enjoyment and appreciation rationale (Tamborini et al., 2011) and specifically the experimental paradigm used to test the NEAR in Lewis et al. (2014).  Various forms of retribution were manipulated within subject. Liking/disliking was measured through a binary response variable and latency of response was recorded. Preliminary findings suggest that just retribution (i.e., retribution for an offense which is roughly equivalent to the offense itself) is evaluated more quickly and more positively than either under retribution (i.e., retribution which is less severe than the offense) and over retribution (i.e., retribution which is more severe than the offense). This talk will present the experimental stimuli and discuss key aspects of the data analysis strategies, along with preliminary findings.

Nic Matthews: Refining the Moral Disengagement Construct

 Current conceptualizations of moral disengagement rely on Bandura’s articulation that is nested within social cognitive theory (SCT). Because SCT construes human behavior as rational and intentional, it applies well to moral thinking leading up to a moral behavior. However, many current conceptualizations of morality construe moral thinking as intuitive. Moreover, contemporary theories of moral psychology argue that altruism is part of morality and that morals serve a functional role in society. This talk discusses the possibility that intuition, altruism, and functionality can expand and refine current conceptualizations of moral disengagement.

Ron Tamborini:  Challenging ADT?

Since its introduction in the 1970s, affective disposition theory (ADT) has been one of the most widely used frameworks for explaining narrative appeal. It has been applied successfully to the study of humor (Zillmann & Cantor, 1972), drama (Zillmann & Cantor, 1977) and sports (Zillmann, Bryant, & Sapolsky, 1989) as well as other entertainment genres. Recently, however, scholars have started to question ADT, claiming that while it is effective for explaining the appeal of simple “Hollywood blockbuster” narratives, it is inadequate for explaining many other narrative forms (Raney & Janicke, 2013). This is particularly true for the appeal of narratives that do not follow the traditional hero trope, such as The Sopranos, Dexter, or Breaking Bad. Such challenges to ADT have intuitive appeal, and any successful effort to extend ADT would certainly be a valuable addition to entertainment theory. At the same time, there may be good reason to question the veracity of claims that ADT is inadequate for explaining certain forms of narrative appeal, particularly if critiques of ADT turn out to be misleading. This talk attempts to reconcile recent challenges to ADT.

Brian Klebig: The Problem of Purity

The purity construct of moral foundations theory (MFT) has always been its problem intuition. Conceptually it is very broad, encompassing concepts like transcendence, disgust, nobility, cleanliness, religiosity, and even general morality. This has resulted in a number of problems, including very weak effect sizes in experiments (or non-significance even when every other intuition attains it) and low inter-coder reliability in content analyses (.6 being fairly normal when the other intuitions have alphas around .8). A better definition of purity as a construct in MFT is crucial to improving research involving the theory. This talk will explore some potential avenues and attempt to stimulate some thought and discussion over how purity may be isolated and more rigidly conceptualized.

Lindsay Hahn: The Morality of Political Speech

We used moral foundations theory (MFT) to test whether ‘non-elite’ Democrats and Republicans used different moral language (i.e., intuitions) to talk about divisive political issues. We analyzed their language in three ways: 1) by applying the moral foundations dictionary in a Linguistic Word Count (LIWC) program, 2) by training human coders to rate the extent to which language reflected MFT’s intuitions, and 3) by applying Wordfish (Neiman, Gonzalez, Wilkinson, Smith, Hibbing, 2016), a procedure that estimates the most distinguishing words between Republicans and Democrats. Consistent with Graham et al., (2011), our results showed that Republicans and Democrats differed in the extent to which they valued moral concerns on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. However, contrary to expectations, political orientation did not influence the extent to which partisans used moral intuitions in their language. Instead, our LIWC and human coding showed that moral language was best predicted by political topic (although results differed slightly according to which coding procedure was applied). Additionally, our third analysis (with Wordfish) indicated that moral words made up only a small percentage of the most divisive words used separately in Republicans’ (5%) and Democrats’ (15%) speech. Taken together, these findings highlight two problems in morality research; first, previous contentions that Republicans and Democrats’ speech is easily distinguished by the moral words they use may not apply equally to layperson versus elite speech, and second, that extracting moral intuitions from text produces different results depending on the method of extraction.

Jaime Banks: Perceived Moral Agency and Trust in Social Machines

As social machines – from chatbots and agents to social toys and co-working robots –find increasing acceptance in homes, schools, and workplaces, humans’ trust in these machines emerges as a key factor in functional and social adoption. Most perspectives on human-machine trust (largely in philosophy and HCI domains) emphasize perceptions of machines’ functional agency, but either assume or dismiss perceptions of moral agency. I’ve focused, in a series of studies, on the question of whether and how people ascribe moral agency to different types of social machines, attending to both the ‘moral’ quality (intuited and/or reasoned) and the ‘agency’ component (autonomy and non/dependency). A perceived moral agency (PMA) scale development project supports a model in which social machines are ascribed hybrid intuited/rational morality, and distinct ascriptions of autonomy and programming-dependence, and these ascriptions are linked to trust; other studies suggest that machine features (size, nonverbals, aesthetics, haptics), human features (openness to technology) and interaction features (robot compliance, sustained interaction, task/social/play contexts) may play a role on the PMA/trust association.

Kevin Kryston: Sequential Moral Decision-Making in Video Games

Rarely are moral decisions made in a vacuum. Rather, they are nested within larger frameworks of narrative arcs or, in the case of video games, chapters in which decisions and moral choices have consequences which persist throughout the game. In these sequential cases, two different theoretical perspectives suggest different outcomes; one, moral consistency, suggests that players will act consistently across multiple moral choices. The other, moral balancing, suggests that players will balance immoral and moral behaviors. This study was an initial test of sequential moral decision-making both in and outside of games, in which we test moral consistency and moral balancing against each other in a video game context. In this study participants (n = 253) made multiple sequential decisions within a choose-your-own adventure style narrative based on a popular video game, and subsequently performed two behavioral outcome tasks designed to measure pro- and anti-social behaviors. The results suggest more support for moral consistency perspective over moral balancing, and are discussed in regards to both the morality and media literature and ongoing work in this area.



Fall 2016

Wrapping up my first full semester as faculty here in Communication at MSU, I can finally reflect on the semester and what’s been happening.

Media and Morality

I was involved in two media and morality  workshops, one at MSU and one at Radboud University in Nijmegen, as well as a media and morality discussion panel at NCA. As usual, I just wish we had more time for these things, as they bring together scholars on an important topic in a way we don’t get to do on a day-to-day basis. Most interesting themes in the area of media and morality from these talks, from my perspective:

  • Looking at both the positive and negative effects of moral portrayals, including character ambiguity, moral license or cleansing, and consequences for altruistic and egoistic behavior. Of course this touches on my own work, but also new stuff coming out from Mina Tsay and Maya Krakowiak, Morgan Ellithorpe and David Ewoldsen, and Sven Joeckel and Layla Dogruel, among others.
  • Focusing on the role of the audience in perception of morality, particularly in terms of attributions about character motivations and in terms of audience moral deliberation/entering the moral playground of narrative and video games. This has been driven by several folks, namely Matthew Grizzard and Tilo Hartmann in video games, and Clare Grall, Nick Bowman, and Ron Tamborini in narrative.
  •  Charting the developmental effects of sociomoral portrayals in media on children. This has been coming for a while (particularly from Robert Lewis and Lindsey Hahn) but I confess it hasn’t really interested me terribly… until I got involved in a project looking at moral intuition salience after points of moral conflict in Brave. Excited to work on those data with Serena Daalmans and Lindsey Hahn this coming year.
  • Identifying the neural correlates/ROI for moral reasoning in narrative. I can’t say much but be ready for some really cool papers coming out in the next year on this topic!

Media and Well-Being

Of course the big news in media and well-being research was the publication of the Routledge Handbook of Media and Well-Being, edited by Leonard Reinecke and Mary Beth Oliver. Such an incredible volume that pulls together established and new scholars to tackle this important topic.

Leonard and I are also currently working on the special issue of Journal of Media Psychology on Media and Well-Being, which will come out in 2017.

I have several papers under review in this area currently, which I hope to announce in the coming year. Not to tip my hand here, but I can say that the papers I’m most excited about in this area include one with Matthias Hofer on media use and well-being in the elderly, one on the psychological costs and benefits of binge-watching, and two on media use for recovery and personal expansion. So this area will get a lot of traction in the coming year (I hope!)


Teaching this semester was incredible. I had a lovely graduate seminar on historical perspectives and current developments in mass communication theory. We covered a range of topics and perspectives, and I had the pleasure of reading excellent final papers extending or refining existing mass comm theories/perspectives such as Uses and Gratifications, Reinforcing Spirals, Two-step flow, and Social Cognitive Theory. It was a class I’d taken once from John Sherry and once from Steve Lacy, so it was especially exciting to teach from both those perspectives in my first term back at MSU.

In short, although I miss the VU and living in the Netherlands quite a bit some days, I am on the whole still overwhelmingly pleased to be back in East Lansing and with the incredible faculty, students, and opportunities available at Communication Arts & Sciences here at MSU. Onward and upward to 2017!

Morality and media symposium Nijmegen

Information pulled from


The role of morality in understanding audiences’ uses of and responses to media has always been a central subject for media scholars. The earliest theories of entertainment (cf. disposition theory: Zillmann & Cantor, 1976) were quick to establish the role of morality related to the appeal of characters and narratives. This area has become a vital and vibrant issue in the entertainment community, which is engaged in answering question such as: What do different media types (television, games, and film) have to offer viewers in terms of moral content? Does morality play a part in how audience members select, interpret and respond to media characters and narrative? During this symposium we will delve into these questions and more, to displays the state of the art of contemporary research that has been conducted within the field of communication science, media psychology and other related disciplines. This symposium hopes to incorporate questions and opinions of audience members into a larger discussion regarding the implications of morality considerations in media content, uses and effects research, and will hopefully serve as an inspiration for continued research and collaboration on morality and media.

Symposium programme

12.30 – Opening & lecture 1: Television and its moral content, Serena Daalmans, MSc

13.00 –  Lecture 2: “Consistency, conflict, and change: Defining factors of moral ambiguity”, by Dr. Allison Eden

13.45 – Coffee break

14.00 – Lecture 3: “A Moral Disengagement in Violent Video Games Model”, Dr. Tilo Hartmann

14.45 – Lecture 4: “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and Me: The Temporarily Expanded Boundaries of the Self Model and Morality in Narratives”, Dr. Ben Johnson

15.30 – Coffee break

15.45 – Lecture 5 “Mapping viewers’ moral evaluation of morally ambivalent television drama”, by Merel van Ommen, MSc


How consumers select apps (Dutch)

Nice blog post (in Dutch) about our work on how consumers select apps from the app store from my colleague Christian Burgers at the Vrije Universiteit. He touches on two recent articles looking at 1) the use of heuristics and 2) visual metaphor in app download decisions.

We have a new paper underway that further examines the use of visual metaphor in app downloads, extending our findings from the transportation domain to the medical and finance domains.

Hoe consumenten kiezen in de app-store


#MMMSU Media and Morality @MSU

Today we are hosting the first workshop on Media and Morality @MSU. Gathering together researchers from both in and outside of Michigan State University, we focus on networking, proposal development, measurement issues, and the “big questions” of media and morality over the course of a beautiful fall weekend here at MSU.

Interested in joining us? Contact me via email at for more information!


Jaime Banks (West Virginia University, Department of Communication Studies)
Gary Bente (MSU, Department of Communication)
Nicholas Bowman (West Virginia University, Department of Communication Studies)
Leyla Dogruel (Freie Universität Berlin, Department of Political and Social Sciences)
Allison Eden (MSU, Department of Communication)
Morgan Ellithorpe (MSU, Advertising + Public Relations Department)
David Ewoldsen (MSU, Department of Media and Information)
Matthias Hofer (MSU, Department of Communication)
Matthew Grizzard (University of Buffalo, Department of Communication)
Sven Jöckel (University of Erfurt, Department of Media and Communication Science)
Mark Reimers (MSU, Department of Neuroscience)
Nancy Rhodes (MSU, Advertising + Public Relations Department)
Ron Tamborini (MSU, Department of Communication)


Goodbye, Netherlands!

I will be moving back to Michigan this summer to take a position as an assistant professor at the Department of Communication and Michigan State University. Very excited! The department is full of excellent colleagues and the support of the university is outstanding. Communication at Michigan State has always been at the forefront of the discipline and I hope to be part of that tradition.

See more about the department and my fellow new hires here:

NWO coverage of our KIEM grant

Nice summary of our research on avatar-based feedback in a mobility app from NWO (text below):

Transportation figures from December 2013 on traffic jams (‘filedruk’) showed that the number and intensity of traffic jams in the Netherlands has increased ( To stimulate pro-social transportation behavior and to reduce traffic jams, transportation specialists turn towards using the fun of creative games and gamified applications as a persuasive intervention strategy to promote responsible commuting behavior (e.g., taking public transport or bikes instead of cars). In such gamified interventions, players gain points in online, game-like environments by completing real-world tasks concerning their commuting behavior. To combat player fatigue and boredom, virtual avatars are often used in these games to give feedback to keep players motivated. An important question is how these avatar-based feedback processes can be optimized to positively impact and sustain player attitudes towards responsible commuting, motivations to commute responsibly, and commuting behaviors.

In the proposed KIEM project, we answer this question by conducting a field test using player data from the ‘ProMOting smart MoBIlity to Employees (Mobi)’ game, developed and promoted by DTV Consultants. We will track verbal and non-verbal feedback messages delivered by the avatar ‘Mobi’ to players, player behavior, pre- and post-play attitudes towards the game and commuting behavior over time. These tests provide empirical, longitudinal evidence on the effectiveness of different verbal and non-verbal feedback types in serious games and gamified applications.

Results will be used to validate communication-scientific theories on effective mechanisms in serious games and gamified applications, and to improve actual interventions aimed at stimulating pro-social commuting behaviour.


Wetenschappelijk artikel

Top paper at AEJMC

Our paper “Melfi’s choice” – which analyzes viewer reactions to the moral conundrum faced by psychologist Jennifer Melfi after being sexually assaulted in the television drama “Sopranos” – received a top paper award at the recent AEJMC conference in San Francisco. Congrats to all coauthors for a wonderful job!



2015 has been an exciting year. I was offered a permanent position by the VU, I had several papers and book chapters accepted for conferences or publication, and we started work on the NWO grant “Smart use of smart media in transportation.”

Perhaps most important for me personally, I welcomed my boy into the family on June 11. He looks skeptical but I think he will come around.