Moral Thin-Slicing: Forming Moral Impressions From a Brief Glance

64 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2022 Last revised: 14 Sep 2023

See all articles by Julian De Freitas

Julian De Freitas

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Alon Hafri

John Hopkins University

Date Written: August 24, 2023


Despite the modern rarity with which people are visual witness to moral transgressions involving physical harm, such transgressions are more accessible than ever thanks to their availability on social media and in the news. On one hand, the literature suggests that people form fast moral impressions once they already know what has transpired (i.e., who did what to whom, and whether there was harm involved). On the other hand, almost all research on the psychological bases for moral judgment has used verbal vignettes, leaving open the question of how people form moral impressions about observed visual events. Using a naturalistic but well-controlled image set depicting social interactions, we find that observers are capable of ‘moral thin-slicing’: they reliably identify moral transgressions from visual scenes presented in the blink of an eye (< 100 ms), in ways that are surprisingly consistent with judgments made under no viewing-time constraints. Across four studies, we show that this remarkable ability arises because observers independently and rapidly extract the ‘atoms’ of moral judgment (i.e., event roles, and the level of harm involved). Our work supports recent proposals that many moral judgments are fast and intuitive and opens up exciting new avenues for understanding how people form moral judgments from visual observation.

Keywords: Moral Judgement; Thin Slices; Social Media; Fake News; Misinformation

Suggested Citation

De Freitas, Julian and Hafri, Alon, Moral Thin-Slicing: Forming Moral Impressions From a Brief Glance (August 24, 2023). Harvard Business School Marketing Unit Working Paper No. 23-002, Harvard Business Working Paper No. 23-002, Available at SSRN: or

Julian De Freitas (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Alon Hafri

John Hopkins University ( email )

Baltimore, MD
United States

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