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?
These 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:
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:
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