Moral reasoning and moral competence as predictors of cooperative behavior in a social dilemma

We will present the background, the research process and the future directions of this project so as to stimulate the discussion regarding the study of morality and cooperation.
Published in Social Sciences

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Moral psychology has made significant strides in studying behavior related to the principles of making right decisions and implementing moral education. The main motivation behind this research project was prompted by inquiries similar to those raised by Georg Lind. He questioned the validity of studying morality solely in terms of attitudes (agreeing or disagreeing with particular statements) rather than in terms of observable behaviors that directly affect the context. Our primary interest lies in understanding how two constructs, moral reasoning and moral competence, which consider morality as the ability to make the transition from judgment to action, play a role in behavioral phenomena such as cooperation. It is essential to comprehend the relationship between morality and cooperation, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which indeed has presented numerous challenges that necessitate the cooperation of citizens, scientists, and governments based on moral principles. Therefore, we believe that understanding the morality-cooperation relationship is critical for addressing the various issues associated with the pandemic.

Research process

We were able to conduct this research project through the support of the "Programa de Apoyo a Proyectos de Investigación e Innovación Tecnológica" (PAPIIT, Project No. IA303727, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico). Due to the confinement conditions caused by the pandemic, we had to rely on digital tools to conduct our studies. As a first step of this research, we obtained the latest version of the Defining Issues Test (DIT‑2) from the Center for the Study of Ethical Development at the University of Alabama to measure moral reasoning. We then collaborated with bilingual Spanish-English experts and experts in moral philosophy to develop a Mexican version of the questionnaire, ensuring its accuracy and conceptual content. Once we developed the Mexican version of the DIT-2, we proceeded to collect data through online surveys using Google Forms, inviting participants to take part in a decision-making experiment.

The decision-making experiment was based on the prisoner's dilemma game (PDG), which allowed us to study cooperative behavior in situations where individuals have the option to act either in favor of a social contract or their individual interests, which are economically more attractive. We relied on digital tools and designed the experiment on a virtual platform using the LIONESS Lab website ( and then organized group sessions to run the experiments combining Zoom and this virtual platform.  This allowed us to conduct the experiments remotely and enabled the participation of individuals who may not have been able to participate in a face-to-face setting. To make the social dilemma more realistic, we provided participants with real economic remuneration in Mexican pesos. After completing the online experiments, participants completed the Moral Competence Test (MCT, for which a Mexican version was already available) in a Google Forms format. Overall, the use of digital tools and remote experimentation allowed us to conduct a more inclusive and realistic study on cooperative behavior in challenging situations.

Our findings showed that individuals with more sophisticated moral reasoning and moral competence were more likely to continue acting cooperatively, even when faced with counterparts who did not reciprocate (sucker situation). These results suggest that maintaining cooperation in socially complicated situations may largely depend on one's level of moral development.

Future directions

Using the results of this study as a starting point, we are currently conducting experiments where we further explore the relationship between moral reasoning, moral competence, and cooperation. In these new experiments we manipulate the adversity through a programmed scenario where participants will initially receive cooperation, but in the following rounds their counterparts only defect. This experimental design allows for a more precise test of the hypothesis that individuals with more sophisticated moral reasoning and moral competence are more likely to maintain cooperation in adverse situations where counterparts do not act reciprocally. As such, we hope to obtain additional evidence that sheds light on the moral bases of cooperative behavior in the face of adversity, that is, when others do not behave in the same manner.

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