Psychosocial development and moral orientation among traditional-aged college students

Psychosocial development and moral orientation among traditional-aged college students

Jones, Carla E

Using the Measure of Moral Orientation (MMO) (Liddell, 1990) and the Student Developmental Task and Lifestyle Assessment (SDTLA) (Winston, Miller, & Prince, 1995), the effect of moral orientation (ethic of care and ethic of justice) and gender on 182, predominantly White, traditional-aged college students’ psychosocial development was investigated. Results indicated that students who perceived themselves as having both a low care and a high justice orientation scored significantly higher on psychosocial development. Women scored significantly higher on tolerance than men. Limitations and implications of the study are discussed.

In higher education, psychosocial development refers to the process by which traditional-aged college students resolve biological and psychological changes and simultaneously adjust to environmental and sociocultural influences. According to Chickering and Reisser (1993), “Psychosocial theories view development as a series of developmental tasks or stages, including qualitative changes in thinking, feeling, behaving, valuing, and relating to others and to oneself” (p. 2).

Among the many theories proposed to explain how individuals psychosocially develop, Chickering’s work has, perhaps, been the most influential for student development educators. Chickering (1969) proposed a seven-path (vector) model of psychosocial development that explains how students develop psychosocially in higher education. His intention was to develop a conceptualization that could be used by faculty and staff to address the nonacademic concerns of students. This framework is frequently used by college faculty and staff (Chickering, 1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993).

In the second edition of Education and Identity, Chickering and Reisser (1993), revised the original seven vectors and listed them as follows: developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. Chickering and Reisser stressed that “human development should be the organizing purpose for higher education,” and “that community colleges and four-year institutions can have significant impact on student development along the major vectors” (p. 265).

Along with psychosocial development, moral orientation has become an increasingly popular topic in the fields of psychology and education. Moral orientation “refers to the use of a person’s moral voice, specifically, an ethic of care or an ethic of justice, or both” (Liddell & Davis, 1996, p. 485). These two moral perspectives, care and justice, represent different ways of experiencing and perceiving oneself in relation to others.

Kohlberg modified Piaget’s work and fueled the current debate within education and psychology on moral development. Consistent with Piaget, he proposed that children form ways of thinking through their experiences and understand moral concepts such as justice, equality, rights, and human welfare. Kohlberg, however, followed the development of moral judgment beyond the ages that Piaget studied and determined that the process of achieving moral maturity took longer and was more gradual than Piaget had originally proposed (Kohlberg, 1984; Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989).

Kohlberg stressed that moral development is based primarily on moral reasoning and unfolds in stages. On the basis of his research, Kohlberg identified six stages of moral reasoning grouped into three major levels. Each developmental level represented a fundamental shift in the social-moral perspective of the individual. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is based on a justice perspective, that (a) focuses on individual rights; (b) stresses separation, detachment, and autonomy; and (c) emphasizes impartial analysis using rules and principles of fairness (Kohlberg, 1976, 1984; Power et al., 1989).

Gilligan (1982) articulated an alternative and equally valid approach to moral reasoning based on the principle of care. The care voice is a moral perspective that focuses on interpersonal communication, relationships with others, and concern for the well-being of others. As Gilligan (1988, p. 8) has stated,

The values of justice and autonomy, presupposed in current theories of human growth and incorporated into definitions of morality and self, imply a view of the individual as separate and of relationships as either hierarchical or contractual, bound by the alternatives of constraint and cooperation. In contrast, the values of care and connection, salient in women’s thinking, imply a view of self and other as interdependent and of relationships as networks created and sustained by attention and response.

Gilligan’s care perspective views individuals in terms of their connectedness with others, and stresses the necessity to be responsible in relationships, to be sensitive to others’ needs, and to avoid harming others.

In Gilligan’s (1977; 1982) criticism of Kohlberg’s male-centered position, she explained that concerns about care, interconnectedness, and relationships are fundamental to women’s psychosocial development. Such notions can also be found in Josselson’s (1987) work on identity development in women, and Miller’s (1984) research on the psychology of women. The question of what role moral orientation may play in psychosocial development, however, has not been fully explored. Thus, the primary purpose of this study was to examine the effect of moral orientation on psychosocial development among traditional-aged college students. The authors hypothesized that moral orientation would significantly impact psychosocial development. In addition, the effect of gender on psychosocial development was explored. Because of inconsistencies in the literature, no specific gender differences were hypothesized.



Participants included 87 male and 95 female undergraduate volunteers attending general psychology classes at a large, Midwestern university. Participants’ ages ranged from 17 to 24 years (M = 19.9, SD = 3.6). Of the 182 students in the total sample, 70.9% were freshmen, 15.4 were sophomores, 8.8% were juniors, 3.8% were seniors, and 1.1 were graduate students. With regard to ethnicity, 89.6% identified themselves as Caucasian, 6% as African-American, and 4.4% as belonging to another ethnic group or groups. Approximately one third (32.4%) of the participants lived in a single-sex residence hall, and 98.9% reported themselves as single.


Student Developmental Task and Lifestyle Assessment (SDTLA). To assess psychosocial development among traditional-aged college students, the SDTLA (Form F95) (Winston et al., 1995) was used. The SDTLA is designed to measure certain aspects of Chickering’s theory of psychosocial development (Chickering, 1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993). The 153-item SDTLA is composed of three developmental task areas: (a) Establishing and Clarifying Purpose, (b) Developing Autonomy, and (c) Mature Interpersonal Relationships. Each developmental task is further composed of subtasks. Higher scores reflect greater psychosocial development.

Establishing and Clarifying Purpose Task is comprised of four subtasks:

1. Educational Involvement (the degree to which students have well-defined educational goals and plans, are actively involved in the academic life of their school, and are knowledgeable about campus resources);

2. Career Planning (the extent to which students are able to formulate specific vocational plans, make a commitment to a chosen career field, and take the appropriate steps necessary to prepare themselves for employment);

3. Lifestyle Planning (the degree to which students are able to establish a personal direction and orientation in life that includes personal, ethical, and religious values, future family planning, and educational and vocational objectives); and

4. Cultural Participation (the extent to which students are actively involved in a wide variety of activities and exhibit an array of cultural interests and a sense of aesthetic appreciation).

Developing Autonomy Task is composed of four subtasks:

1. Emotional Autonomy (the degree to which students trust their own ideas and feelings, have self-assurance to be confident decision-makers, and are able to voice dissenting opinions in groups);

2. Interdependence (the extent to which students recognize the reciprocal nature of the relationship between themselves and their community and fulfill their citizenship duties and responsibilities);

3. Academic Autonomy (the degree to which students have developed the capacity to deal with ambiguity and to monitor and control behavior in ways that allow for the attainment of personal goals and fulfillment of responsibilities); and

4. Instrumental Autonomy (the extent to which students are able to structure their lives and to manipulate their environment in ways that allow them to satisfy daily needs and meet personal responsibilities without assistance from others).

Mature Interpersonal Relationships Task is composed of two subtasks:

1. Peer Relationships (the extent to which students have developed mature peer relationships characterized by greater trust, independence, frankness, and individuality) and

2. Tolerance (the degree to which students are accepting of those of different backgrounds, beliefs, races, cultures, lifestyles, and appearances).

In addition, the SDTLA has a Salubrious Lifestyle Scale designed to assess the degree to which a student’s lifestyle promotes or is consistent with good health and wellness practices. To assess response bias, the SDTLA also contains a 7-item Lie Scale.

Sufficient reliability and validity data have been supported for earlier versions of the SDTLA (Hess & Winston,1995; Winston,1990; Winston & Miller, 1987). With one exception, scale and subscale reliability scores for the SDTLA used in the current study were judged sufficient: Establishing and Clarifying Purpose Task (r = .90), Educational Involvement subtask (r = .76), Career Planning subtask (r = .82), Lifestyle Planning subtask (r = .79). Cultural Participation subtask (r = .56), Developing Autonomy Task (r = .86), Emotional Autonomy subtask (r = .71), Interdependence subtask (r = .73), Academic Autonomy subtask (r = .77), Instrumental Autonomy subscale (r = .55), Mature Interpersonal Relationships Task (r = .72), Peer Relationships subtask (r = .60), Tolerance subtask (r = .75), and Salubrious Lifestyle Scale (r = .74). Because of the poor internal consistency reliability of the Lie Scale (KR-20, r = .34), it was not used in future analyses.

Measure of Moral Orientation (MMO). Liddell’s (1990) MMO was used to measure the strength of a person’s moral voice. Drawing from the works of Kohlberg and Gilligan, the 83-item MMO is designed to measure both the ethics of care and of justice. The instrument is composed of two components. The first component is comprised of eight moral dilemmas common to traditional-aged college students (e.g., conflicts with roommates, student organizations, boyfriend or girlfriend, family). Students are asked to assume the role of the person described in each dilemma and respond to items reflecting either a justice or care orientation. The second component of the MMO is comprised of a 14-item, selfdescription inventory designed to measure students’ perceptions of themselves as caring or just individuals. Sample items include: “When I make decisions I tend to be more concerned with how my decisions will affect others, rather than whether I am doing the right thing” and “I would rather be known as someone who is always objective and just, rather than someone who is sensitive to others’ feelings.” Respondents rate each item on a 4-point, Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (strongly disagree).

Scores for the MMO are obtained by summing the values for the care and justice items for each of the four scales (i.e., Care, Justice, Self-Description of Care, Self-Description of Justice). Higher scores on a scale reflect greater moral orientation.

Sufficient reliability and validity data have been reported for the MMO. For instance, Liddell and Davis ( 1996) reported the following internal consistency reliabilities: Care (.83), Justice (.70), Self-Description of Care (.64), and Self-Description of Justice (.70). In the present study, coefficient alphas for the four scales were judged acceptable: Care (.88), Justice (.76), SelfDescription of Care (.65), and Self-Description of Justice (.57). Additional reliability information and validity support regarding the MMO is reported in the works of Liddell and Davis (1996), Liddell, Halpin, and Halpin (1992), and Mosion (1995).


Consistent with previous researchers (e.g., Liddell & Davis, 1996), median splits were conducted on the distribution of moral orientation scores to categorize participants into high and low groups. Separate multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVAs) were then computed to assess the effects of moral orientation and gender on psychosocial development. One threeway MANOVA was computed to test for the effects of ethic of care, ethic of justice, and gender on psychosocial development scores. Using Wilks’s criterion, a significant overall main effect was found for gender, F(11, 161) = 2.40, p

A second three-way MANOVA was computed to assess the effects of Self-Description of Care (SD-Care), Self-Description of Justice (SD-Justice), and gender on psychosocial development scores. A significant overall effect was found for the interaction of SD-Care by SDJustice on psychosocial development scores, F(11, 160) = 1.94, p = .05, eta^sup 2^= .12. Univariate analyses indicated significant differences on Career Planning, F(1, 170) = 6.62, p


Considerable empirical support exists for the conclusion that students undergo cognitive, moral, and psychosocial changes during their college years (e.g., Astin, 1984; Chickering, 1969; Chickering & Reisser,1993; Gilligan,1982; Kohlberg, 1984; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

Our results indicated that students whose perceptions of themselves as having both a low care and a high justice orientation scored significantly higher on the following measures of psychosocial development: Career Planning, Lifestyle Planning, Peer Relationships, Salubrious Lifestyle, Instrumental Autonomy, Interdependence, Emotional Autonomy, and Academic Autonomy. Perhaps individuals who are more adept at balancing their concern for others with an appropriate focus on their own needs are in a better position to develop psychosocially.

Research suggests that both men and women are cognizant of and able to use both care-based and justice-based moral reasoning, but men typically prefer a justice-based perspective whereas women typically prefer a care-based approach (e.g., Gilligan & Attanucci,1988; Skoe & Diessner, 1994). With respect to gender differences in psychosocial development, women were found to have significantly higher scores on tolerance. Although research examining gender differences on earlier versions of the SDTLA has yielded inconsistent results (e.g., Sheehan & Pearson, 1995; Winston & Miller, 1987), researchers have found women to possess higher levels of tolerance than men (Pollard, Benton, & Hinz, 1983).

Student affairs professionals should be concerned with fostering development in students, helping them find their own moral voice and strengthening identified developmental weaknesses. Organized programs, services, and activities that are designed to help students find a balance between self-sacrifice, reliance on others, and caring for self, seem particularly beneficial. Indeed, Liddell and Davis (1996, p. 492) have stated that “There is value in helping college students develop a moral language that encompasses both an ethic of care and an ethic of justice.” A sample activity might be an instructional video followed by a discussion about personal values.

Practitioners can assist this process by providing developmental opportunities for students to grow in challenged areas. Unfortunately, as reported by Hess and Winston (1995), college residence hall students were less likely to participate in activities that were designed to enhance their individual developmental weaknesses. According to Hess and Winston (1995, p. 320),

If student affairs professionals take seriously an obligation to seek to enhance the growth and development of all students, then they must be proactive in identifying and aggressively soliciting the participation of students who could most benefit from developmentally oriented programs and services, but who may be unlikely to attend without external support and encouragement.

The challenge for hall staff is to foster activities which are not only focused on student development, but are also appealing and entertaining to their intended target. A panel discussion with a host, music, and questions from the audience may attract students while also addressing developmental issues. In addition, student affairs professionals need to reexamine policies and practices to assess the full impact they exert on student moral and psychosocial development. For example, if educators create policies that students routinely circumvent without admonishment, the educators may be encouraging behavior that is detrimental to the development of ethical decision-making skills.

This study’s findings are preliminary, and any conclusions should be interpreted with caution. Certain limitations are also worth noting. First, our sample consisted primarily of White freshmen. Research suggests, however, that psychosocial development increases across class standing (e.g., Zuschlag & Whitbourne, 1994). Thus, our findings may represent an artifact of the sample being measured and may be an underestimate of the effect of moral orientation on psychosocial development. Additional research should be directed toward examining and clarifying the exact nature of the relationship between moral orientation and psychosocial development, and whenever possible, older and more ethnically diverse student samples should be included.


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Carla E. Jones is Associate Dean of Student Life at Kansas State University. John D. Watt is a doctoral student of Psychology at Kansas State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Carla E. Jones, Associate Dean of Student Life, Kansas State University, 102 Holton Hall, Manhattan, KS 66506;

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