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Complexity, moral reasoning, and attitudes toward capital punishment De Vries, Brian


This study examined several interrelated issues in social-developmental psychology: (a) the relationship between conceptual and integrative complexity; (b) the relationship between conceptual complexity and moral reasoning; (c) the relationship between attitudes toward capital punishment and moral reasoning; (d) the relationship between attitudes toward capital punishment and conceptual and integrative complexity; and (e) the relationship between the levels of moral reasoning that subjects use to substantiate their own, versus an opposing, position on a moral problem (i.e., capital punishment). Participants were 72 university students (from first-year to graduate school) who completed the Paragraph Completion Test (assessing conceptual complexity), wrote an issue composition on capital punishment (assessing integrative complexity and moral reasoning), generated statements supporting and opposing capital punishment (assessing moral reasoning), and responded to a capital punishment attitude questionnaire. Results indicated that the two measures of complexity are comparable--but not equivalent--assessments of the cognitive structures in information processing, and that conceptual complexity and moral reasoning are moderately related. Integrative complexity and attitudes toward capital punishment related in a curvilinear manner with extreme attitudes (both pro and con) characterizing conceptual simplicity and moderate attitudes characterizing increasing complexity. Moral reasoning and attitudes toward capital punishment related in a linear manner with opposition to capital punishment increasing with moral stage. Furthermore, subjects did not always use higher moral reasoning to substantiate their own attitude or position on this issue, rather they used higher moral reasoning when opposing it, regardless of their chosen position. The implications of these findings for the theories of moral reasoning and conceptual and integrative complexity are discussed and suggestions are advanced for the direction of future research.

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