What Is the Defining Issues Test?

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  • Written By: C.B. Fox
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 25 March 2020
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The defining issues test, often abbreviated as the DIT, is a test given to measure a person's morality. Originally created in 1979, this test has since been rewritten so that the scoring is more reliable. A person's moral development changes over time and with education, and one of the main purposes of the defining issues test is to track a person's morality as it changes through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The current version of the test has five questions that ask test-takers to consider which, between two choices is the morally right thing to do.

James Rest first developed the defining issues test in 1979. His original version of the test contained six moral dilemmas. Students would examine a dilemma, such as whether the character Heinz should steal a drug from its inventor in order to save his dying wife and determine which choice is morally correct. The test was designed to focus on the reasoning behind the choice, not the choice itself, so that test-takers can conceivably fall anywhere along the morality scale regardless of which choices they think are right.


The current version of the defining issues test has only five questions. The set up of the test is the same as the original, and test takers are still asked to make choices about a difficult moral dilemma and then to rationalize their decisions. After each dilemma, 12 statements are included in order for test takers to explain the reasoning that led them to make the choices that they did.

There are three levels of morality that a person can have when tested using the defining issues test. These levels are broken into six stages as defined by the psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. The first level is is pre-conventional morality and indicates that a person is guided by self-preserving interests, such as choosing an action that will not have a negative affect on him or an action that will cause other people not to like him. The second level is known as conventional morality and is guided by a desire to uphold and obey the law and to preserve social norms. The third level is post-conventional and people who test in this level of morality often make choices based on what they personally believe to be right and wrong rather than what society tells them is right or wrong.


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