Cognitive Daily

Imagine the following scenario:

Matthew is playing with his new kitten late one night. He is wearing only his boxer shorts, and the kitten sometimes walks over his genitals. Eventually, this arouses him, and he begins to rub his bare genitals along the kitten’s body. The kitten purrs, and seems to enjoy the contact. How wrong is it for Matthew to be rubbing himself against the kitten?

Or how about this one:

You find a wallet with several hundred dollars in cash, along with credit cards including an American Express Gold Card and ID locating the owner’s home in the richest neighborhood in town. You’re barely making ends meet. How wrong is it for you to keep the cash and anonymously mail the wallet back to the owner?

ResearchBlogging.orgThese are questions of morality, which many people believe we can answer based on reason alone. But a couple of recent studies suggest that seemingly unrelated local circumstances can affect how we perceive the morality of scenarios such as this. A team led by Simone Schnall asked students walking outside on a college campus to answer questions about scenarios like this, rating them on a scale of 1 (extremely immoral) to 7 (perfectly okay). The catch was that they had rigged a trash can near the experimenters’ desk with fart spray. Some respondents read and rated the stories in the presence of a mild stink (four sprays of fart scent), some had a strong scent (eight sprays), and a lucky third group completed the experiment with no scent at all. Here are the results:

i-28602bd4207ead67f6b6bc169d52004e-schnall1.png

This graph shows the combined average ratings of several different scenarios, like marrying or having sex with a cousin, falsifying a résumé, or filming a documentary without permission of those being interviewed. The combined ratings were significantly lower — more immoral — when the survey was conducted in the presence of fart smell. Schnall’s team says that this demonstrates that our moral judgment is affected by disgust: we’re harsher in our moral judgments when we’re disgusted (a post-test confirmed that those who smelled the fart spray were significantly more disgusted than the others). Interestingly, the quantity of fart spray didn’t matter: despite the fact that everyone agreed that more fart spray smelled worse, the moral judgments weren’t different depending on how much spray was used.

In three additional experiments, the researchers confirmed that disgusting smells weren’t solely to blame. They had students rate scenarios in a disgusting office (with a sticky desk and old pizza boxes overflowing the trash can), after watching a disgusting movie, and after recalling a time when they were disgusted. The results were similar: People who are more disgusted express stronger moral outrage at questionable scenarios such as eating your dog after it’s killed in a car crash, or flipping a railyard switch to save five people from a crash but causing the death of another person.

But if manipulating people to feel disgusted causes stricter moral judgments, might it be possible to manipulate emotion in a different way to cause moral laxity? Working with a new team, Schnall gave a new group a students similar tests of morality, but instead of evoking disgust, the experimenters primed students to think about cleanliness and purity. In one of their experiments, the students washed their hands before completing the survey (the experimenters explained that the office they’d be working in was kept extremely tidy by the professor who occupied it). Here are the results:

i-ba2dab37494589078a63c82af71127f6-schnall.png

This time the rating scale was reversed (9 = Completely Wrong; 0 = Perfectly Okay). The students who washed their hands said that the scenarios were significantly less immoral than those who didn’t wash their hands. In another experiment, thoughts about purity were induced by a word-scrambling task; and the students who unscrambled words like “pure,” “washed,” and “immaculate” again rated the scenarios as less immoral than those who unscrambled neutral words.

So the context in which we make moral decisions matters quite a lot. Moving from disgusted to neutral thoughts leads to a significant change in moral attitude, and moving from neutral to pure thoughts causes yet another change. We don’t appear to make moral decisions with cold rationality or consistency — even when we’re assessing the how wrong it is to masturbate with a kitten.

Schnall, S., Benton, J., & Harvey, S. (2008). With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1219-1222 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02227.x

Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G., & Jordan, A. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (8), 1096-1109 DOI: 10.1177/0146167208317771

Comments

  1. #1 Ryan Shewcraft
    April 23, 2009
  2. #2 Jim
    April 23, 2009

    I took a peek at the articles, are not the standard deviations overlapping for each of the questions they asked?
    I have have always thought this meant there was no real differance between the various data collections.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    April 23, 2009

    Standard deviations overlapping is not easily/obviously related to statistical significance. You need to look at Standard Error or Confidence intervals. See this post.

  4. #4 Rob
    April 23, 2009

    An interesting explanation on why so many members of various clergy are able to perform acts the majority of the population finds distasteful and rationalize it as not a bad thing they have done

  5. #5 Matthew Platte
    April 23, 2009

    Huh? Canned farts!? What’ll Archie McPhee think of next?

  6. #6 Poweriault
    April 23, 2009

    Kitten… hahahahahaaha! Sorry, the image is too much. hahahahahh …


    sorry, I passed out. Oh man, too weird an image. I wonder if Mathew would steal the wallet to support his kitten habit?

  7. #7 Kevin H
    April 23, 2009

    I would have thought that this disgust based shift would be egocentric. I’m not sure if that is the right term, but what I mean is the cleanliness of the world relative to themselves, but interestingly This doesn’t seem to be the case.

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    April 23, 2009

    Seems like there’s a lot of room for testers’ bias in that first experiment: you’d need completely anosmic survey-collectors to approach double-blind conditions.

  9. #9 Eli R.
    April 23, 2009

    I’m sure the variables are all over the place here. But wouldn’t an obvious one be the individual’s predisposition towards disgust? If two people react to the same smell differently, that would mean the associated moral judgment would be skewed.

  10. #10 Katkinkate
    April 23, 2009

    You have to be careful of those kittens. They have sharp little claws.

  11. #11 Anonymous
    April 24, 2009

    This article is *definitely* intriguing – the measurement of an individual’s morality is a fascination idea. However a few of my concerns are about the validity and reliability of this study because there are so many spurious variables that may cause inconsistency.

  12. #12 Donna B.
    April 24, 2009

    I wonder if even stronger relationships might be found after subjects actually performing disgusting tasks like mucking out a stable, or handling food slop, or doing a shift of garbage pick-up.

  13. #13 a2lbd
    April 24, 2009

    This helps to understand why the term Con artist is sometime used in lieu of crook.

  14. #14 Gabriel Byrne
    April 24, 2009

    Could this suggest why the lowest income bracket of a population tends towards moral conservatism? Or perhaps why people living in squalor ie. much of India tend towards moral conservatism? (recall that a newly-wed couple was recently arrested for kissing in public…)
    Consider also that one person’s squalor (or group’s) may be another’s hygiene heaven. Not everyone will be equally affronted by the stimulus.

  15. #15 Saskia
    April 24, 2009

    @Eli R:
    Yes, individuals will probably vary in their propensity towards disgust, but that’s why you carry out the experiment on a reasonable sized group of participants rather than just a few. Individual differences should balance out over the group.

    Although of course, in order to generalise to the entire population you have to assume that your sample is representative in terms of the variable you are measuring. In my experience I’d say that many students seem to be less prone to disgust that they should be(!), so if anything you might expect that the general population would show stronger effects. Perhaps someone needs to test how easily disgusted students are?!

  16. #16 Gabriel Byrne
    April 24, 2009

    Ah yes. However I assume these were students from the USA, so how they will compare with, say sewerage workers from Bombay, mums who change diapers or vendors of the open-air butcheries in Lagos, Nigeria…?

  17. Sounds interesting. As far as I understand it’s better to keep fresh all day long (not to mention personal hygiene…) to be considered as moral. It can explain, why women are believed to be better in social area (caring of elders or children, more often treated as victims than men, etc), as they always hide some bottle of perfume in their bags.
    It seems like Chanel were right: only perfumed woman can conquer the world…

  18. #18 Dave Munger
    April 24, 2009

    Eli R:

    That’s an excellent point. In fact, the researchers *did* study this. In addition to the overall effect described above, they indeed found that people who had a lower sensitivity to their own bodily sensations were less affected by the disgusting smells/other means of invoking disgust. This in turn led to less of an effect of their own moral judgments. So basically, someone who doesn’t notice their own body odor isn’t going to judge others more harshly in the presence of something disgusting like canned fart smell.

  19. #19 croor singh
    April 24, 2009

    maybe an alternate explanation is that people pick lower numbers (whatever the numbers themselves might mean) more often than not?

  20. #20 kai
    April 24, 2009

    Yes, that’s what I thought too—what if it is faster to condemn and they just wanted to get away from the smell? ;-)

  21. #21 MP
    April 24, 2009

    I’m making a generalization, but college-aged people would be less developed in their moral stances and perspectives than people in their 60s (generally speaking). Or perform the same tests on a devout Buddhist, clergyman, or Professor of Ethics at some Uni and I bet you’d get different results. I don’t feel these tests accurately represent us. They represent those of us who haven’t done an exceptional amount of meditation and reflection on such things.

  22. #22 Jason Dick
    April 24, 2009

    I wonder if this might explain why religions, which always provide such a pure, austere picture of themselves among their followers, can get away with so much.

  23. #23 Holbik
    April 24, 2009

    What the fuck?

  24. #24 Nigel
    April 24, 2009

    I am wondering how they are so sure that disgust is the relevant variable. Might it not be something like annoyance or discomfort that is leading people to judge more harshly? My guess is that if you did something annoying but not disgusting, such as playing a loud, unpleasant buzzing sound, during the testing, you would see much the same results as you do with fart smells. Feeling bad, for whatever reason, tends to curdle the milk of human kindness, or dry up the springs of forgiveness.

    [I feel compelled to say, also, and speaking as someone not very far off being in his 60s myself, and thus, apparently, almost ready to join the ranks of the moral elite, that I find MP’s claim that older people tend to be more moral than younger ones quite disgusting in itself. People who assume that they, or their peer group, are morally superior to some other group (as defined by some ethically irrelevant criterion, such as age, or race) are not at all the sort of people I trust to behave ethically.]

  25. #25 Dave
    April 25, 2009

    So, we are more judgmental when we are disgusted. This seems intuitive when the issues at hand are the same, but in this case there was cross over between unrelated sensory input and an ethical question.
    So much for Descarte’s brain- body dualism and mental objectivity…our thinking is very influenced by a myriad of other inputs, and cannot be relied upon.

  26. #26 meterman12
    April 25, 2009

    Since ancient times, whether or not modern humanists like this, moral codes have been derived from religious beliefs. It’s only in post-modern times has it become the practice, among some, to extract morality from its’ religious roots.

  27. #27 Nigel
    April 26, 2009

    Meterman12, have you ever heard of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Confucius…..?

    Just wondering.

  28. #28 Nigel
    April 26, 2009

    Hey, I only clicked once!

  29. #29 andrew cooke
    April 27, 2009

    Jim: I took a peek at the articles, are not the standard deviations overlapping for each of the questions they asked? I have have always thought this meant there was no real differance between the various data collections.

    Dave: Standard deviations overlapping is not easily/obviously related to statistical significance. You need to look at Standard Error or Confidence intervals. See this post.

    Referenced Post: Standard errors are typically smaller than confidence intervals. For reasonably large groups, they represent a 68 percent chance that the true mean falls within the range of standard error — most of the time they are roughly equivalent to a 68% confidence interval. In fact, a crude rule of thumb is that when standard errors overlap, assuming we’re talking about two different groups, then the difference between the means for the two groups is not significant.

    Now as far as I know, standard error and standard deviation are the same thing. It’s possible someone (me?) is confusing the distribution of the population with the distribution of the mean. But if not, it seems to me that Jim had a valid point. Can someone please clarify?

  30. #30 Andrew Cullison
    April 27, 2009

    “So the context in which we make moral decisions matters quite a lot. Moving from disgusted to neutral thoughts leads to a significant change in moral attitude”

    Why do you think that a differential of what looks like a variance of less 1 on a 10-point scale constitutes a significant shift in moral attitude?

  31. #31 Chris
    April 28, 2009

    Re #29, standard error of the mean is computed as sample S.D. divided by root-n, where n is the number of participants.

    Example: suppose 50% of our sample rate something a “3”, 50% rate it a “5”. This gives us a mean of 4 and a sample SD of 1, regardless of how large our sample is. However, intuitively, the accuracy of 4 as an estimate of the real population mean increases as you increase the sample size. SEM relates to the accuracy of this estimate.

  32. #32 locksmyth
    April 28, 2009

    @Meterman12

    religious beliefs have been derived from moral codes.

    I fixed that for you.

  33. #33 Pat
    April 29, 2009

    I wonder if the difference in moral judgement would hold with behavior that is more universally recognized as being “bad,” such as incest or murder. Does cleanliness make pedophilia less disgusting?

  34. #34 Phil
    April 30, 2009

    Why was the rating scale reversed?

  35. #35 this is the point
    May 7, 2009

    the point is morality amd how we form what we consider moral decicions can be skewed, (excuses my bad spelling) the test shows that its simple people in general can be manipulated when the outcome is to manipulate them conditions can be set for the results that are more desirable.(hence advertiseing)
    The inteligent person assumes they can not be steared or focused but every one can be, unles your a pariniod egomaniac.

  36. #36 Rodney Fraser
    June 15, 2009

    The use of fart smell as an olfactory trigger will not produce the same results due to the inherent possibility that a subject may enjoy the smell of the fart vector. Even if one were to put aside all subject contamination, there would appear to be no application for the results of such a study. What can be gained scientifically and logically speaking from a study involving genitals, cats, and farts?

  37. #37 ChristianK
    August 10, 2009

    Smell is sensed in a logarithmic fashion.
    8 Cans don’t smell double as bad as four cans but only a little bit worse.
    Using the word “mild” for one of those and “strong” for the other suggests a much greater difference in smell.

    The signal might very well not be strong enough to be picked up by the statistic tests.

  38. #38 Marcia Dream
    August 12, 2009

    The subjects should have been tested on how they subjectively experienced the smells first. Whether farts smell bad, whether eight farts smell twice as bad as four farts, and whether the small eights farts is something you find mildly distasteful or something that make you want to leave the room is something that differs from indiviual to individual.

    It’s also possible that people who smelled the “bad” smells were more eager to get out of the environment, and that therefore the test proves that when given a shorter period of time in which to make a moral decision, they will be more likely to take a negative stance than a positive one.

  39. #39 wynnosu
    August 28, 2009

    I know many women who have used kittens as objects of arousal. They claim the feeling of the fur against their private areas is quite stimulating. Is this wrong? I think it depends on your point of view. However, they would claim multiple orgasms is difficult to argue against.

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