Moral Development in Childhood and Adolescence

In this dissertation project children’s moral development was investigated in two studies.

Project Description


Moral development is a complex process. It includes the development of the ability to distinguish right from wrong, to act according to moral principles, and to feel moral emotions. In this context, learning moral principles is just as relevant as the development of moral motivation or the ability to make moral judgments (moral reasoning). The project "Moral Development in Childhood and Adolescence" dealt with those various aspects of moral development and the different factors which influence it. The studies particularly focused on the relevance of social cognitions as well as contextual and cognitive factors in the development of moral skills.

During childhood, moral development is characterized by a two-step process. In the first, early process, children acquire knowledge about morality. Moral motivation develops in the following, second step of moral development. It is defined as the motivation to act according to moral principles, even if they are contrary to one’s own needs or wishes. However, the step from moral knowledge to moral motivation is not taken equally by all children. In fact, children differ in the time they need to take this step and in the degree of success. Also, the patterns of justification of moral principles and feelings change over the course of development. The project "Moral Development in Childhood and Adolescence" examined which factors matter in these developmental processes.


MoMo-study – Moral Judgments and Moral Motivation

The MoMo-study analysed cognitive and contextual factors on moral reasoning as well as on moral motivation and moral emotions. In this study, we examined the different forms of reasoning children use when making moral judgments in a range of different contexts and whether moral motivation varies in different contexts. Furthermore, the role of cognitive skills in these contexts were clarified.

MoToM-study - Moral Development and Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind develops during childhood and describes the ability to ascribe mental states to other people. Theory of Mind involves the ability to take other perspectives or the capability of recognizing intentions and desires of other people. For several years, researchers have analysed, how theory of mind is associated with moral judgments and moral emotions. The aim of the MoToM-study was to clarify the relationship between theory of mind and moral development in childhood. The study especially focused on the children’s evaluation of various moral transgressions as well as their estimation of adequacy of punishment. Finally, this study examined if and when children use information about the transgressor’s intentions in making moral judgments and if this varies based on children’s theory of mind competence.


Social and Moral Development Laboratory

Dr. Melanie Killen
University of Maryland

Dr. Kelly Lynn Mulvey
University of South Carolina

Project Management

Prof. Dr. Marcus Hasselhorn

Project Team

Prof. Dr. Hanna Beißert

Project Details

Completed Projects
Department: Education and Human Development
2011 – 2017
External funding