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Is torture justifiable?  Should murderers receive the death penalty?  Does a person in a persistent vegetative state deserve moral rights? While such questions may have no objective answer, understanding how people answer them not only illuminates basic social psychological processes but helps us to decide issues when lives hang in the balance. 

The Mind Perception and Morality Lab, under the direction of Prof. Kurt Gray, is in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The lab investigates moral judgments and how people perceive the minds of others. Linking mind perception and morality can help explain why people debate torture, why they believe in God and how good (and evil) deeds can make people physically more powerful.

Research conducted by MPM lab members has been featured in the New York Times, the Economist, the National Post, Harvard Magazine, the Boston Globe and at two TED events (click to see TED talk).


What is the structure of morality? Lab research suggests that good and evil require (at least) two people, one person to do the harm, and one person to receive it. The person who does the harm - the agent - is perceived in terms of blame, while the person who receives the harm - the patient - is perceived in terms of pain. Thus morality is dyadic, equaling Blame + Pain. Boston Globe coverage. (article)

How can good deeds make us powerful? When we think of Superman, one image comes to mind--someone capable of doing heroic feats of strength. Lab research finds that engaging in good deeds can increase a person's tenacity and personal power. Interesting, evil deeds make us at least as powerful, if not more. See the TED talk. (article)

Why are humanoid robots so creepy? The unnervingness of humanoid robots--called the Uncanny Valley--arises because human faces make people think robots have the capacity for emotions (e.g., love) and we are loathe to think robots have this mental ability. Likewise, people are averse to the idea of people without emotions, such as zombies.
The Economist coverage. (article)

How does pain (and pleasure) depend on the intentions of other people? Pain was initially thought to be only physical, but it seems to respond to psychological variables. Lab research finds that intentions matter. Identical shocks hurt more when given maliciously. Massages also feel better when given benevolently, and food tastes better when made with love. The Economist coverage. (article)

Why do people believe in God? There are many reasons why people believe in God, but lab research suggests that suffering increases belief. People are used to having other people to blame for their plight but when another person to blame cannot be found, they look to the ultimate agent - God. Support for this idea comes from the high correlation between suffering and religious belief in the US. (article)

How do we view vegetative patients? Biologically, people in a persistent vegetitative state (PVS) exist somewhere between life and death. Lab research reveals, however, that people see PVS patients as "more dead than dead" because of dualism--psychologically separating mind and body. PVS patients are seen as mindless bodies, whereas the dead are seen as bodiless minds. The Economist coverage. (article)

How does nakedness change how people see our minds? The simple act of taking off a sweater can change how people see your mind. Traditionally, scholars have thought that naked people are stripped of all mind (dementalized) and seen as objects (objectification). Our research suggests, however, that showing skin makes you seem less capable of acting, but more capable of feeling and sensing. Nakedness=experience. Wired coverage. (article)


Kurt Gray grew up in Canada, completed his undergrad at the University of Waterloo and his PhD at Harvard. He was almost a geophysicist instead of a social psychologist, but a cold night stranded and stalked by lynx in Northern Alberta convinced him otherwise. Unsurprisingly given the title of the lab, he is interested in mind perception and morality. He enjoys surfing and photography, but if forced to choose, would rather do research than either.

Website                                                                Email: kurtgray (at) unc.edu

Graduate Students and Full-Time Staff

Chelsea Schein is a 2nd year student investigating morality and mind perception and studying how these judgments vary across time and different targets. She also researches moral behavior, for instance, what factors make people less likely to cheat.
Email: cschein (at) live.unc.edu

Jonathan Keeney is a 2nd year student exploring the interplay of moral cognition and real-world decision making.  He is interested in behavioral business ethics, strategic self-presentation and the moral averson to profit-maximizing behavior.
Email: jek (at) unc.edu

Neil Hester is a 1st year student interested in altruism, expressions of morality in language, and how people’s moral experiences—such as wrongful activity or victimhood—influence how we perceive them. In addition to research, he also enjoys writing poetry and singing.
Email: nehester (at) live.unc.edu

Peter Schmitt is a full time research assistant working on the Templeton funded project "The Immortality of Morality." He is also interested in context effects on moral judgment and mind perception, and the psychology of blackmail.
Email: pgs239 (at) nyu.edu

Research Assistants


Luz Cuaboy, Brian Davis, Alix Desch, Erin Edmonds, Terri Frasca, Anne McCarthy, Mallika Rajan, Alex Rennie, Rachel Uhlman.

Lab Alumni


Daryl Cameron, Kristen Klein, Anna Sheveland,



This chapter provides a good (and short) summary of lab publications:

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Morality takes two: Dyadic morality and mind
           perception. In P. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), The Social Psychology of
. APA Press.

Peer-Reviewed Papers

  in press

Schein, C. & Gray, K. (in press) The prototype model of blame: Freeing moral cognition from           linearity and little boxes. Psychological Inquiry.

Gray, K.*, Schein, C.*, & Ward. A. F. (in press). The myth of harmless wrongs
          in moral cognition: Automatic dyadic completion from sin to suffering. Journal of
          Experimental Psychology: General.

Gray, K.*, Rand, D. G.*, Eyal, E., Lewis, K., Hershman, S. & Norton, M. I. (in press). The
          emergence of “Us and Them” in 80 lines of code: Modeling group genesis in
          homogeneous populations. Psychological Science.   (online demo)


Lewis, K., Gray, K. & Meierhenrich, J. (2014). The structure of online activism. Sociological            Science, 1, 1-9.

Gray, K. & Ward, A. F. & Norton, M. I. (2014). Paying it forward: Generalized reciprocity
           and the limits of generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143,

Leimgruber, K. L., Ward, A. F., Widness, J., Norton, M. I., Olson, K. R., Gray, K., Santos, L. R.,
          (2014). Give what you get: Capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) and 4-year-old children
          pay forward positive and negative outcomes to conspecifics. PLoS One, 9: e87035


Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2013). Six guidelines for interesting research. Perspectives
          in Psychological Science, 8
, 549-553.


Gray, K. & Schein, C. (2012). Two minds vs. two philosophies: Mind perception defines
           morality and dissolves the debate between deontology and utilitarianism. Review
           of Philosophy and Psychology, 3
, 405-423.

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2012). Feeling robots and human zombies: Mind perception
           and the uncanny valley. Cognition, 125, 125-130.

Gray, K. (2012). The power of good intentions: Perceived benevolence soothes pain,            increases pleasure, and improves taste. Social Psychological and Personality Science,            3(5), 639-645.

Gray, K., Young, L., Waytz, A. (2012). Mind perception is the essence of morality.
           Psychological Inquiry, 23, 101-124. [target article]
           *Winner of the Daniel M. Wegner SPSP Theoretical Innovation Award

Gray, K., Waytz, A., Young, L. (2012). The moral dyad: A fundamental template unifying
           moral judgment. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 206-215. [reply to commentaries]

Cushman, F., Gray, K., Gaffey, A. & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Simulating murder: The            aversion to harmful actions. Emotion, 12(1), 2-7.


Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom. P. & Barrett, L. F. (2011). More than a body:            Mind perception and the nature of objectification. Journal of Personality and            Social Psychology, 101(6), 1207-1220.

Gray, K., Knickman, T. A. & Wegner, D. M. (2011). More dead than dead: Perceptions of            persons in the persistent vegetative state. Cognition, 121, 275-280.

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Dimensions of moral emotions. Emotion Review, 3(3),           258-260.

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2011). To escape blame, don't be a hero - be a victim. Journal                      of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 516-519.

Gray, K., Jenkins A. C., Heberlein A. H. & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Distortions of mind           perception in psychopathology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,           108(2), 477-479.


Gray, K. (2010). Moral transformation: Good and evil turn the weak into the mighty. Social           Psychological and Personality Science, 1(3), 253-258.

Waytz, A., Gray, K., Epley, N., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Causes and consequences of mind           perception. Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 383-388.

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Blaming God for our pain: Human suffering and the divine           mind. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 7-16.

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Torture and judgments of guilt. Journal of Experimental           Social Psychology, 46(1), 233-235.


Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Moral typecasting: Divergent perceptions of moral agents           and moral patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 505-520.

Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2008). The sting of intentional pain. Psychological Science, 19,           1260-62.

Gray, H. M., Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. (2007). Dimensions of mind perception, Science, 315,           619.


Back row (L to R): Peter, Erin, Alix, Brian, Alex, Kurt
Front row: Neil, Rachel, Anne, Terri, Luz, Mallika, Chelsea


         Kurt Gray (with Liane Young and Adam Waytz) wins SPSP Theoretical Innovation Award
         The MPM lab is awarded a Templeton Grant to study Immortality
         Kurt Gray awarded a Psi Chi Undergraduate Teaching Award
         Incoming student Neil Hester awarded a University Fellowship
         Kurt Gray talks with Josh Knobe on Blogging Heads
         MPM lab dominates at trampoline dodgeball
         Kurt Gray is named an APS Rising Star
         Chelsea Schein awarded an NSF GRFP





Interested in joining the lab? We are looking for undergraduate research assistants to help out conducting research. Must be conscientious and have good attention to detail. Must also like people - this is social psychology, after all. Email Prof. Gray with a summary of your classes, grades, experience and a brief but heartfelt admission of your passion for research.

The lab is taking a new graduate student for the fall of 2014. Must be excited to apply social psychological methods to enduring philosophical topics such as morality, other minds, God, and creepy humanoid robots. Past successful applicants have had GPAs > 3.7, above average GRE scores and extensive independent research experience.