Moral Emotions and Moral Identity Development in Adolescence

"A child's readiness to go to school, to brave the dentist, to seek out a new friend, or to run away from punishment is based on the appraisal of how he or she will feel when facing those situations." (Harris, 1985, p. 161). As illustrated by this quote of one of the leading researchers in the field of emotional development, emotion expectancies play an important role in individuals' everyday life, not only in childhood but in adolescence and adulthood as well. They influence individual decision-making and actual emotional experiences (thus, if someone expects fear in a particular situation, he or she will more likely experience fear).

            Research in developmental psychology suggests that children's emotion expectancies do not simply reflect past emotional experiences but are systematically linked to social-cognitive development and children's understanding of the self in action. This is particularly true for moral emotions (see Mascolo & Fischer, 2007; Tracy, Robins, & Tangney, 2007). Whereas children have the capacities to experience empathy as well as moral emotions of guilt and shame quite early in development (3-4 years, see Eisenberg, 2000; Grusec, 2006; Hoffman, 2000; Thompson, Meyer, & McGinley, 2006), they usually do not anticipate these emotions in the context of moral actions before the age of 7-8 years. Instead, they tend to expect positive emotions for a wrongdoer who commits an action in order to achieve a desired goal. This was repeatedly found in studies with children. However, very few studies extended research on moral emotion expectancies (= anticipated emotions when transgressing a moral rule or conforming to it, MEE) beyond childhood. Thus, very little is known about MEE in adolescence. This research aims at filling this gap by systematically studying MEE in relation to adolescent moral identity formation. In general, adolescence is seen as a critical period for identity development (Erikson, 1959; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993). While struggling with the question "Who am I?" some adolescents develop a moral identity and start to consider moral concerns as an integrated part of themselves, whereas others do not (Damon, 1996; Hart, 2005). The  research investigates developmental change of moral emotion expectancies (MEE) in the course of moral identity formation in adolescence.

            Three studies are conducted: Study I investigates adolescents' MEE in the context of everyday moral action. The study includes a variety of situations dealing with different moral norms, types of action and situational contexts. It assesses MEE of adolescents from different grade levels (7, 9, and 11) and follows them over a time interval of 24 months. Study I provides important baseline information about developmental change and continuity of individual differences in adolescents' MEE. At the same time, it investigates reciprocal relationships between moral identity formation and MEE. Study II specifically addresses the question how MEE contribute to individual decision-making. In an experiment, it is tested whether MEE predict action-choices independently of moral judgment. Theoretically, it is expected that the impact of MEE on moral decision-making increases in the course of adolescent development. Study III investigates personal narratives of situations where participants knew that an action was morally wrong, but did not feel bad about doing it (alternatively, felt good about not doing it). It extends research on self-defining memories and analyzes how narratives about moral actions with positive and negative emotional outcomes contribute to individuals' sense of who they are.

            Overall, this research aims at clarifying fundamental processes and mechanisms for positive youth development. There is general agreement that emotional competencies, on the one hand, and a person's moral identity, on the other, play a pivotal role for positive youth development (Lerner, Brentano, Dowling, & Anderson, 2002). As moral emotions become increasingly self-integrated in the course of adolescent development, they create a sense of responsibility and moral commitment towards self, family, community and civil society that lays the foundation for generativity in adulthood. However, little is known how emotional competencies are linked to the process moral identity formation in adolescence. Such knowledge is essential to create effective programs for promoting positive youth development (Berkowitz, Sherblom, Bier, & Battistich, 2006). Eventually, the proposed research will contribute to the cultivation and creation of social settings that give adolescents sufficient opportunities to become caring and responsible citizens.