Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ana Gantman


Justin Storbeck

Committee Members

Steven Young

Eric Mandelbaum

Subject Categories

Psychology | Social Psychology


morality; moral curiosity; antiheroes; moral worldbuilding


Morality is a critical aspect of life––it influences how we think, design political and legal systems, who we connect with, our norms, and the types of stories we tell. Yet, even with the well documented influence of morality on many aspects of life, exactly what makes moral themes so fascinating remains elusive. This dissertation aims to introduce Moral Worldbuilding as a theory for understanding our epistemic drives toward morally ambiguous and morally bad content.

In Chapter I, we introduce the problem of moral badness, which is not well handled by extant moral literature. To combat this, we offer a new framework called Moral Worldbuilding. Moral worldbuilding, like other coherence-based theories, posits that moral cognition is largely in the service of epistemic goals, helping people define the contours of their moral worlds. This framework helps to explain what are otherwise seen as peculiar features of our morality like why people often feel good when doing bad and critically, why we are so drawn to moral ambiguity and moral badness. To this end, we explore why potentially immoral things (e.g., true crime) are nonetheless cognitively engaging, drawing in curiosity and explanation-seeking drives.

In Chapter II, we leverage the diverse body of literature introduced in Chapter I to investigate what makes morality so special and test the foundations of Moral Worldbuilding. A pilot experiment, and Experiments 1a and 1b establish the plausibility of this framework by showing that people are more curious to learn moral about ambiguity and moral badness than moral goodness and moral averageness. We find that moral ambiguity and badness specifically prompt explanation-seeking motives. We also explore how individual differences in what the moral world looks like contribute to moral curiosity.

In Chapter III and Chapter IV, we show that norms influence moral curiosity and that curiosity for moral ambiguity is unique. In Experiment 2, we show that moral ambiguity and moral averageness differ, and that moral curiosity predicts perceived but not actual learning. In Experiment 3, we demonstrate that moral ambiguity is a unique source of epistemic motivation. We compare moral ambiguity to aesthetic ambiguity and explore the individual differences that moderate interest in moral ambiguity.

In Chapter V, we synthesize the findings presented in Chapters II-IV and discuss their implications for moral theory. We demonstrate that the Moral Worldbuilding framework and findings presented in this dissertation make novel predictions about information-seeking, and moral cognition more broadly. We also discuss limitations of this work. While we demonstrated that moral curiosity is most consistently directed toward ambiguous and bad moral content, several questions remain, including whether there exists a boundary condition for interest in badness. Together, this work provides a unique interdisciplinary approach to improve the study of morality.