Proscriptive versus prescriptive morality: Two faces of moral regulation

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Sana Sheikh, Sebastian Hepp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

230 Citations (Scopus)
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A distinction is made between two forms of morality on the basis of approach–avoidance differences in self-regulation. Prescriptive morality is sensitive to positive outcomes, activation-based, and focused on what we should do. Proscriptive morality is sensitive to negative outcomes, inhibition-based, and focused on what we should not do. Seven studies profile these two faces of morality, support their distinct motivational underpinnings, and provide evidence of moral asymmetry. Both are well-represented in individuals' moral repertoire and equivalent in terms of moral weight, but proscriptive morality is condemnatory and strict, whereas prescriptive morality is commendatory and not strict. More specifically, in these studies proscriptive morality was perceived as concrete, mandatory, and duty-based, whereas prescriptive morality was perceived as more abstract, discretionary, and based in duty or desire; proscriptive immorality resulted in greater blame, whereas prescriptive morality resulted in greater moral credit. Implications for broader social regulation, including cross-cultural differences and political orientation, are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)521-537
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009


  • Morality
  • Self-regulation
  • Approach
  • Avoidance


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