Ever wondered why we get disgusted by things that taste bad and also by things that are morally outrageous? Well, it seems that they really are connected in a very deep way – moral disgust seems to have evolved as an extension of physical disgust.
And that means you can play a neat trick: you can measure moral disgust indirectly by looking to see how it affects our physical sense of disgust.
Ryan Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston at the University of Illinois have been doing just that. The basic set up was to get students to taste-test a drink as part of what supposed to be part of a marketing survey. They tasted two drinks – although of course they were actually the same drink (made up of 1 cup of lemon juice in 1 gallon of water – rated as ‘moderately disgusting’!).
In between the two tests, they did some filler tasks (to allow their taste buds to clear, you see). To start with, they had to copy out a passage of text – it just so happened that some had to copy out a passage from the Bible, some a passage from the Koran, and some a passage from Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.
Oh, and did I tell you that they specially recruited only Christian students?
On the second taste test, the students that had to copy a passage from the Koran or The God Delusion rated the beverage as significantly more disgusting (even though it was identical). Their moral disgust at having to write out this stuff translated into physical disgust.
Both the Koran and The God Delusion are equally disgusting to Christians, by this measure at least.
In another twist, Ritter and Preston got their students to do another marketing test – after copying out the passages but before the second taste test. This time, they had to rate some handwipes – you know, those moist, antiseptic wipes that come in a plastic packet.
Half of them had to rate the wipes by just looking at the packet, but half were asked to actually wipe their hands.
Well, what do you know. The simple act of wiping their hands made the second drink seem less disgusting. It wiped out the effect of copying out the Koran or the God Delusion, and those lucky Christians who were tasked with copying out the Bible and then wiped their hands seemed to have positively enjoyed the second drink! You can see how the different groups rated the second drink compared with the first in the graph.
This ties in nicely with some earlier research showing that hand washing seems to link cleanliness with morality. Cleanliness really is next to godliness!
Ritter, R., & Preston, J. (2011). Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), 1225-1230 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.006