Moral Judgement and Disgust

The importance of effective, accessible science communication that breaks through closed information loops is vitally important now. I wish I had seen this earlier. This is my practice and experimental ground, and I hope it also proves to be interesting and useful. Let’s get started.

During the 2016 US presidential campaign season, did you ever hear an argument from a candidate and find yourself reacting with disgust? I certainly did. Did you stop to wonder why, of all the reactions that could come from political disagreement– anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, focus– disgust was your first reaction in that moment? What does it mean for political discourse and the direction of the world?

Today, I’ll be talking about how disgust influences moral judgement, as studied in “Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgement,” by Simone Schnall, Jonathan Haidt, Gerald Clore, and Alexander Jordan.

I sought out this piece after listening to this great TED interview with Jonathan Haidt, whose book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, has been on my mind lately. If you don’t have the energy or time to both read this blog post and listen to the interview with Dr. Haidt, please check out the interview instead of this post :) I would be delighted if no one kept reading, but everyone who stumbled on to this post watched the video or picked up Haidt’s book!

To better understand how feelings of disgust affects moral judgements, the authors set up 4 experiments. In each, they caused people to feel disgust using different things, and then compared their behavior to that of people who were not exposed to the disgusting thing.

They prompted disgust in a different way in each experiment: by asking participants to remember a disgusting experience; having them sit in a gross workplace (with used tissues, dried up smoothie, a sticky desk, and more); showing them film clips, and releasing “fart spray”. (Yes, the phrase “fart spray” appears in this article.) Some participants got this disgusting “treatment,” and some did not.

Then, they asked the participants in both the disgusted group and the control (no disgust) group to respond to prompts designed to be different kinds of moral judgements. They were given short stories about fictional people doing something that could be considered immoral and asked to make a moral judgement about what happened in the story. Some of the vignettes were designed to evoke moral disgust and some were not. For example, one scenario described a person who ate his dead dog— which may evoke disgust– and another described a person lying on his resume.

The question, which was addressed somewhat differently in each of the 4 experiments, was “does a feeling of disgust that comes from outside (like the fart spray) influence moral judgements in scenarios that involve moral disgust more than other scenarios?”

In order to learn more and to make sure they are testing the right thing, the experiments had some variations. One experiment tested whether disgust from an outside source would influence moral judgement differently in people who are highly in touch with their physical feelings (like hunger– measured by Private Body Consciousness) than in those who are not.Another experiment asked whether nonmoral decisions were also affected by disgust, And finally, one experiment tried to disentangle the effects feelings of disgust from other negative feelings by comparing groups who watched a disgusting film clip with those who watched a sad film clip (and both with a group who watched a neutral film clip).

They found that physical disgust seemed to cause people to make more harsh moral judgements in scenarios that were designed to include disgust and those that were not! Those who were more in tune with their physical responses made much more harsh moral judgements, whereas those who were not as aware of their reactions did not make more harsh judgements. The affect of disgust did not spill over to nonmoral judgements, and sadness did not have the same effect.

 

What does this study mean to you?

It’s going to have me looking at my gut reactions (especially in political discussions) in a whole new light. Remember that disgust and contempt can have dreadful impacts on interpersonal relationships– the researchers who found the effects of contempt on marriage dubbed it one of the 4 Horsemen of the end of a relationship– so tread carefully when you feel contempt.

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