Historical Psychology Illuminates New Perspectives on Morality

PBS Welcomes New Assistant Professor

Mohammad Atari
Mohammad Atari

Mohammad Atari, who joined the Psychological and Brain Sciences faculty in fall 2023, is uncovering what factors influence how psychology changes across historical time and cultural space. Along with his colleagues at Harvard University, he has developed the emerging field of historical psychology. Researchers in this area are trying to understand why psychology theory, social influences, and practice continue to change as time progresses.

Atari uses cutting-edge Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques to comb through collections of textual data, extracting psychological information that relates to, for example, moral values or emotions. NLP is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that gives computers the ability to understand text and spoken words in much the same way human beings can. It is used in the app ChatGPT, gaining widespread popularity as an AI-driven language model capable of generating human-sounding text from user-spoken prompts.

During Atari’s PhD at the University of Southern California (USC), one of his areas of focus was social media analysis. His team scraped the internet for millions of tweets and Reddit posts, then applied NLP techniques to extract psychological data. One project looked at the effect of moral homogeneity on violence and intergroup hate.

“We have a paper showing that moral homogeneity in social networks, especially right-wing social networks, can result in hate speech and derogatory language. The idea is that when you are in a bubble so to speak and you think that everyone around you shares your moral values, you are going to be more confident, you're going to feel a kin-like bonding with your group, and you're going to be surer about your attitudes and convictions. This leads you to draw a stronger line between your in-group and your out-group and potentially become more violent or potentially more derogatory towards the out-group member.”

Examples of out-group members could be someone from another faith, ethnicity, or nationality. Atari is also exploring moral diversity, and whether this diversity has a positive impact on society. He raises the question, “What are the boundary conditions for the effect of moral diversity on different psychological outcomes?” Currently he is working with a colleague at the University of California, Berkley investigating how moral diversity affects perceptions of norms and potentially attitudes about violence.

Atari has taken a pluralistic approach to studying moral values, he treats morality as not just one concrete principle but a network of connected beliefs. “For example, ideas around justice are part of morality, harm avoidance is obviously a big part of morality, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, respect for sanctity of things or entities, or purity,” Atari notes, “these things are also a part of morality, and we have moral intuitions that guide our judgment in everyday life about these issues.”

A population’s culture also plays a significant role in shaping how psychological domains change. The cross-cultural aspects of Atari’s research examine the differences in thinking and behavior between individuals from different groups. He employs NLP, surveys, experiments, and fieldwork to analyze how topics like religion or political attitudes contribute to the diversity of psychology across the globe.

As a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, his team led by Professor Joseph Henrich applied several NLP techniques to extract cultural-psychological information from text resources like historical newspapers, novels and non-fiction books, and even political speeches.

Using a corpus of published newspapers in the U.S. that went back to the late 18th century, the researchers found that individualism has been constantly rising in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. “We also found that the culture is "loosening up" (social norms are becoming more relaxed, fewer rules and restrictions exist, and norm violations are not as strongly punished). Much of this work is still ongoing, and we are still experimenting with various NLP techniques and different corpora. I am collaborating with classicists, historians, and anthropologists, expanding this new line of research to include classical Chinese, Latin, and Persian,” Atari states.  

So how can we learn more about our own moral values? Atari co-directs the website yourmorals.org with Professors Morteza Dehghani (USC) and Jesse Graham (University of Utah), founded by Jonathan Haidt (NYU), which contains an online questionnaire where individuals can get scores on six moral concerns. These include care, equality, proportionality, loyalty, authority, and purity. After submitting, people can see how concerned they are about these moral domains compared to the broader population in the United States.

When asked what he is looking forward to at UMass, he replies, “I'm really excited to be working with the great faculty members in social psychology and other areas. There are really wonderful people that I will be working with, and the students are amazing! I'm also looking forward to expanding my lab, the Culture and Morality Lab (CAM-L), having PhD students and potentially postdocs, and growing the lab so we can better understand culture and morality.”