Influences on Moral Development

Like most aspects of development, influencing factors are multifaceted. Moral development is strongly influenced by interpersonal factors, such as family, peers, and culture. Intrapersonal factors also impact moral development, such as cognitive changes, emotions, and even neurodevelopment.

Interpersonal Influences

Children’s interactions with caregivers and peers have been shown to influence their development of moral understanding and behavior. Researchers have addressed the influence of interpersonal interactions on children’s moral development from two primary perspectives: socialization/internalization (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994; Kochanska & Askan, 1995; Kochanska, Askan, & Koenig, 1995) and social domain theory (Turiel, 1983; Smetana 2006). Research from the social domain theory perspective focuses on how children actively distinguish moral from conventional behavior based in part based on the responses of parents, teachers, and peers (Smetana, 1997). Adults tend to respond to children’s moral transgressions (e.g., hitting or stealing) by drawing the child’s attention to the effect of his or her action on others and doing so consistently across various contexts.

In contrast, adults are more likely to respond to children’s conventional misdeeds (e.g., wearing a hat in the classroom, eating spaghetti with fingers) by reminding children about specific rules and doing so only in certain contexts (e.g., at school but not at home) (Smetana, 1984; 1985). Peers respond mainly to moral but not conventional transgressions and demonstrate emotional distress (e.g., crying or yelling) when they are the victim of moral but not conventional transgressions (Smetana, 1984). Children then use these different cues to help determine whether behaviors are morally or conventionally wrong.

Research from a socialization/internalization perspective focuses on how adults pass down standards of behavior to children through parenting techniques and why children do or do not internalize those values (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994; Kochanska & Askan, 1995). From this perspective, moral development involves children’s increasing compliance with and internalization of adult rules, requests, and standards of behavior. Using these definitions, researchers find that parenting behaviors vary in the extent to which they encourage children’s internalization of values and that these effects depend partially on child attributes, such as age and temperament (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). For instance, Kochanska (1997) showed that gentle parental discipline best promotes conscience development in temperamentally fearful children. However, the same parental responsiveness and a mutually responsive parent-child orientation best promote conscience development in temperamentally fearless children. These parental influences exert their effects through multiple pathways, including increasing children’s experience of moral emotions (e.g., guilt, empathy) and their self-identification as moral individuals (Kochanska, 2010).

Moral Development in the Family

In the formation of children’s morals, no outside influence is greater than that of the family. Through punishment, reinforcement, and both direct and indirect teaching, families instill morals in children and help them to develop beliefs that reflect the values of their culture. Although families’ contributions to children’s moral development are broad, there are particular ways in which morals are most effectively conveyed and learned.


Families establish rules for right and wrong behavior, which are maintained through positive reinforcement and punishment. Positive reinforcement is the reward for good behavior and helps children learn that certain actions are encouraged above others. Punishment, by contrast, helps to deter children from engaging in bad behaviors, and from an early age helps children to understand that actions have consequences. This system additionally helps children to make decisions about how to act, as they begin to consider the outcomes of their behavior.


The notion of what is fair is one of the central moral lessons that children learn in the family context. Families set boundaries on the distribution of resources, such as food and living spaces, and allow members different privileges based on age, gender, and employment. The way in which a family determines what is fair affects children’s development of ideas about rights and entitlements, and also influences their notions of sharing, reciprocity, and respect.

Personal Balance

Through understanding principles of fairness, justice, and social responsibilities, children learn to find a balance between their own needs and wants and the interests of the greater social environment. By placing limits on their desires, children benefit from a greater sense of love, security, and shared identity. At the same time, this connectedness helps children to refine their own moral system by providing them with a reference for understanding right and wrong.

Social Roles

In the family environment, children come to consider their actions not only in terms of justice but also in terms of emotional needs. Children learn the value of social support from their families and develop motivations based on kindness, generosity, and empathy, rather than on only personal needs and desires. By learning to care for the interests and well-being of their family, children develop concern for society as a whole.

Morality and Culture

The role of culture on moral development is an important topic that raises fundamental questions about what is universal and what is culturally specific regarding morality and moral development. Many research traditions have examined this question, with social-cognitive and structural-developmental positions theorizing that morality has a universal requirement to it, drawing from moral philosophy. The expectation is that if morality exists, it has to do with those values that are generalizable across groups and cultures. Alternatively, relativistic cultural positions have been put forth mostly by socialization theories that focus on how cultures transmit values rather than what values are applied across groups and individuals.

As an example of some of the debates, Shweder, Mahapatra, and Miller (1987) argued for moral relativism or the notion that different cultures defined the boundaries of morality differently. In contrast, Turiel and Perkins (2004) argued for the universality of morality, focusing largely on evidence throughout the history of resistance movements that fight for justice through the affirmation of individual self-determination rights. In an update on the debate between moral relativism and moral universality, Miller (2006) provides a thoughtful review of the cultural variability of moral priorities. Miller argues that rather than variability in what individuals consider moral (fairness, justice, rights), there is cultural variability in the priority given to moral considerations (e.g., the importance of prosocial helping). Wainryb (2006), in contrast, reviews extensive literature that has demonstrated that children in diverse cultures such as the U.S., India, China, Turkey, and Brazil share a pervasive view about upholding fairness and the wrongfulness of inflicting harm on others. Cultures vary in terms of conventions and customs, but not principles of fairness, which appear to emerge very early in development, before socialization influences. Wainryb (1991; 1993) shows that many apparent cultural differences in moral judgments are actually due to different informational assumptions or beliefs about the way the world works. When people hold different beliefs about the effects of actions or the status of different groups of people, their judgments about the harmfulness or fairness of behaviors often differ, even when they are applying the same moral principles.

Another powerful socializing mechanism by which values are transmitted is religion, which is for many inextricably linked to cultural identity. Nucci and Turiel (1993) assessed individuals’ reactions to dictates from God, and the distinctions in their reactions to God’s moral (e.g., stealing) and conventional (e.g., day of worship) dictates. One explicit manner in which societies can socialize individuals is through moral education. Solomon and colleagues (1988) present evidence from a study that integrated both direct instruction and guided reflection approaches to moral development, with evidence for resultant increases in spontaneous prosocial behavior. Finally, studies of moral development and cultural issues cover many subtopics. For instance, a recent review of studies examining social exclusion identifies cultural similarities in the evaluation of exclusion across a range of societies and cultures (Hitti, Mulvey & Killen, 2011).

Intrapersonal Influences

Moral questions tend to be emotionally charged issues that evoke strong affective responses. Consequently, emotions likely play an important role in moral development. However, there is currently little consensus among theorists on how emotions influence moral development. Psychoanalytic theory, founded by Freud, emphasizes the role of guilt in repressing primal drives. Research on prosocial behavior has focused on how emotions motivate individuals to engage in moral or altruistic acts. Social-cognitive development theories have recently begun to examine how emotions influence moral judgments. Intuitionist theorists assert that moral judgments can be reduced to immediate, instinctive emotional responses elicited by moral dilemmas.

Research on socioemotional development and prosocial development has identified several “moral emotions,” which are believed to motivate moral behavior and influence moral development (Eisenberg, 2000, for a review). The primary emotions consistently linked with moral development are guilt, shame, empathy, and sympathy. Guilt has been defined as “an agitation-based emotion or painful feeling of regret that is aroused when the actor causes, anticipates causing or is associated with an aversive event” (Fergusen & Stegge, 1998). Shame is often used synonymously with guilt but implies a more passive and dejected response to a perceived wrong. Guilt and shame are considered “self-conscious” emotions because they are of primary importance to an individual’s self-evaluation.

In contrast to guilt and shame, empathy and sympathy are considered other-oriented moral emotions. Empathy is commonly defined as an affective response produced by the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state, which mirrors the other’s affective state. Similarly, sympathy is defined as an emotional response produced by the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state, which does not mirror the other’s affect but instead causes one to express concern or sorrow for the other (Eisenberg, 2000).

The relation between moral action and moral emotions has been extensively researched. Very young children have been found to express feelings of care, and empathy towards others, showing concerns for other’s well being (Eisenberg, Spinard, & Sadovsky, 2006). Research has consistently demonstrated that when empathy is induced in an individual, he or she is more likely to engage in subsequent prosocial behavior (Batson 1998; Eisenberg, 200 for review). Additionally, other research has examined emotions of shame and guilt concerning children’s emphatic and prosocial behavior (Zahn-Waxler & Robinson, 1995).

While emotions serve as information for children in their interpretations about the moral consequences of acts, the role of emotions in children’s moral judgments has only recently been investigated. Some approaches to studying emotions in moral judgments come from the perspective that emotions are automatic intuitions that define morality (Greene, 2001; Haidt, 2001). Other approaches emphasize the role of emotions as evaluative feedback that help children interpret acts and consequences (Turiel & Killen, 2010). Research has shown that children attribute different emotional outcomes to actors involved in moral transgressions than those involved in conventional transgressions (Arsenio, 1988; Arsenio & Fleiss, 1996). Emotions may help individuals prioritize among different information and possibilities and reduce information processing demands in order to narrow the scope of the reasoning process (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). In addition, Malti, Gummerum, Keller, and Buchmann (2009), found individual differences in how children attribute emotions to victims and victimizers.

Link To Learning

Parenting has the largest impact on adolescent moral development. Read more here in this article, "Building Character: Moral Development in Adolescence" from the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

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