Date of Award

Spring 6-7-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor/Committee Member

Thane M. Erickson, PhD

Second Advisor/Committee Member

Lynette H. Bikos, PhD

Third Advisor/Committee Member

John Thoburn, PhD


Cognitive models of PTSD implicate attention to threat, negative social cognition, and behavioral avoidance in perpetuating symptoms. In contrast, moral elevation and gratitude are positive socio-moral emotions theorized to facilitate attention to positive features of one’s social context and prosocial approach behavior. No research has examined the relevance of positive moral emotions in the well-being of sex-trafficked women, who may be prone to PTSD symptoms and low positive socio-moral emotions. I tested trait gratitude, elevation, and moral purity as predictors of well-being and moderators of PTSD symptoms on well-being. Participants included sex-trafficked (n = 16) and college (n = 50) women. PTSD diagnosis and symptom severity were determined using the ADIS-5 and PCL-5. Congruent with previous studies, higher PTSD symptoms predicted lower well-being in both samples. As predicted, the trafficked sample had higher prevalence of PTSD, higher PTSD symptom scores, higher negative emotion, and lower well-being than the college sample, and marginally lower trait gratitude. Unexpectedly, the trafficked sample demonstrated significantly higher moral purity than the college sample. Gratitude predicted well-being in the overall (b = 2.57, SE = .48, p < .00) and control (b = 3.04, SE = .35, p < .00) samples but not in the sex-trafficked sample (b = 1.56, SE = 1.37, p = .28), while moral elevation predicted well-being in all samples. Moral elevation buffered effects of PTSD in overall (b = .05, SE = .03, p = .05) and sex-trafficked (b = .09, SE = .05, p = .09) samples, while moral purity buffered effects of PTSD in the college sample (b = .73, SE = .33, p = .03). Additionally, I interviewed the sex-trafficked women about what they are thankful for, what inspires them, and what makes them feel morally clean or unclean, which provided a more nuanced, qualitative level of understanding these women’s experiences. This research provides a preliminary investigation of not only the trauma-related symptoms of sex-trafficked women, but also their positive moral emotions which may serve a protective role and may ultimately contribute to their resilience.

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