Date of Award

Winter 1-10-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor/Committee Member

Thane Erickson, PhD

Second Advisor/Committee Member

Amy Mezulis, PhD

Third Advisor/Committee Member

Thomas Carpenter, PhD


Anxiety and depression can be represented on a dimensional spectrum of negative affect, broadly termed psychological distress. Research has identified several factors that maintain negative emotion, but have neglected the possibility that individuals’ interpretations of moral issues in the larger macro-system affects their level of distress. Thus, the current study investigated the role of perceptions of moral transgressions, or cognitive interpretations of stimuli (“transgressions”) that violate beliefs about right and wrong, as a predictor of psychological distress. Furthermore, this study tested how perceptions of moral transgressions vary as a function of individuals’ own moral intuitions, or moral foundations. Participants (N = 418) completed a one-time online-survey composed of two parts – correlational and experimental phases. In the correlational phase, participants rated their perception of moral transgressions (others-toward-others) in the socio-political climate over the past two weeks. The experimental phase examined momentary distress ratings elicited after random assignment to morally valanced news articles, compared to a control condition. Each portion investigated moral transgressions predicting distress while controlling for risk factors of distress. Moral foundations in domains of harm, fairness, in-group, authority, and purity were expected to moderate (amplify) this pathway. As hypothesized, moderated regression analysis and multi-level modeling (MLM) demonstrated that perceptions of moral transgressions uniquely predicted distress, above and beyond risk factors of distress. Moreover, in line with moderation hypotheses, high moral foundations amplified some effects (e.g., fairness PMT*MF; b = .23, p = .001). These findings elucidate the importance of conceptualizing distress through a comprehensive lens which incorporates clients’ moral systems and perceptions of events in the larger socio-political-cultural climate.

Copyright Status


Copyright Status