Monday, February 3, 2014

That's Just Wrong: How Disgust Plays into Your Moral Judgments

Last night during the Superbowl halftime we were treated to the Red Hot Chili Peppers prancing around half-naked, as they are wont to do. Only for many viewers, it was not a treat. "Yuck," was a common refrain. "Fifty-year-old men should wear shirts. That's just WRONG. Put it away now, put it away, put it away now, Anthony." At least he came out wearing more than a sock over his joystick, right?

Tube socks, because: optimistic
For myself, my "that's wrong" reaction was a little wonkier. I though Kiedis and Flea looked pretty fit, but I was unhappy with Bud's soldier commercial. To me, it seemed an attempt to literally cash in on sentiment and patriotism in a crass and obvious way—a way which actually dishonored those who serve. "It should make everyone disgusted," I ranted on Facebook. "How easily manipulated we are." Everyone should be disgusted, I announced, because I was.

Turns out, we all have some crossed wiring when it comes to making moral judgments for purely subjective reactions. You may not like gory movies, cilantro, or sagging. A restaurant may be too loud for you, a band may play music you think is grating. But whether you consider these issues to be your problem (for you to manage) or the world's problem (a wrong that needs to be set right) depends on how clear you are about where you stop and the world begins. If you have solipsistic tendencies, then what's wrong for you is wrong for everyone.

I don't think people have a lot of control over this, the broadness of their moral intuitions. People who are very black-and-white don't choose to be that way, it's more a matter of temperament. It can be changed, but only with great effort. First you have to recognize you have this temperament; then you have to see how it can be problematic; then you have to mindfully work on retraining your brain. You have to catch yourself making moral judgments, then ask yourself, "Is this really wrong, or is it just my problem?" The results can be life-altering.

The reason it's so hard to disentangle the two goes beyond temperament. We have good evolutionary reasons to confuse "yuck" with "evil." Imagine a tribe of ancient humans comes across a poisonous plant. A few people eat it, some die; the survivors learn to hate the taste. "This is bad," they tell their children, and in the word "bad" you can see the birth of the association between "yucky" and "evil." In such ways are taboos born: think about incest taboos. Incest provokes a strong "yuck" reaction from almost all humans, and accordingly many consider it sinful or evil. You can see where this would be necessary, to avoid three-eyed children and the like. Associating "yuck" with "sin" is, in some cases, evolutionarily advantageous.

One man's yuck is another man's yum
But this general rule of thumb, helpful to our ancestors, is not that helpful anymore. Our moral intuitions are too imprecise, screening out many things that are benign. We have "yuck" reactions to lots of things that aren't morally wrong, such as imagining our parents getting it on. Almost all of us have a strong "ew, ew, ew" response to that, yet we wouldn't be here if it hadn't happened. Clearly, a "yuck" response is not a perfect guide, or even a good one, to moral wrongs. A lot of people, including legislators, preachers, and other leaders who make moral decisions for others, jump to incorrect moral conclusions about things like video games, rock-and-roll, and human sexuality, based on nothing more than personal dislikes and primal moral intuitions—intuitions that fall apart under the barest scrutiny. We would all benefit if they learned to question their moral intuitions and to use a more utilitarian standard.

Of course there is a difference between disgust and dislike, but they're often on the same sliding scale. To pronounce something "disgusting" is to say you dislike it a whole lot. In the same way the "yuck" reaction muddles our moral intuitions, mere dislike can lead us astray as well. Those who are especially susceptible to disgust have some things in common, besides the moralizing aspect: they're black-and-white thinkers, they "go with their guts," they're intuitive more than rational, they form snap judgments, they aren't especially deliberative, and they tend to be politically and religiously conservative. Exceptions abound: the liberal who's a black-and-white thinker, the moralistic person who's rational and deliberative. I'm sure everyone can call to mind half a dozen counter-examples. But a number of solid social-science studies have shown that, exceptions aside, those correlations I listed do hold up.

We can thank our cautious ancestors who engaged in just enough snap judgments and moralistic reactions to icky things to keep us alive. We wouldn't be here without them. We just need to watch out for the downsides. Our moral judgments should have to do with human well-being writ large, not with one individual's likes or dislikes. Anthony Kiedis harmed no one with his birthday half-suit, and if you liked that Bud commercial, you are no less moral than I am.

4 out of 5 babies polled agree: lemons are a sin

Further reading (and watching):

It's Hard to Gross Out a Libertarian, from Reason.com

Disgust and Morality, from Psychology Today

Fart Spray (And Disgust) Make Moral Intuitions More Severe, from ScienceBlogs (gotta love that headline)

The Strange Politics of Disgust, A TED talk by psychologist David Pizarro

What We're Disgusted By Shapes Our Morality, by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt

10 comments:

  1. My current behavioral heuristic for judging other peole's behavior is a pretty primitive one, but it seems to be the best that I can do currently. "People can do or say or act or dress or cavort in any way that they please, as long as they are not hurting other people in the process." I know it needs some work.

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    1. Actually, Laoch, I think you've nailed it.

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  2. I love your writing, Steph, you have framed this so well. I can be so black & white in my thinking and often realise after the fact that the moral outrage I assumed must be felt by absolutely everyone is quite specific to me and I've just gone off on my high horse again.

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    1. Me too, Jaqueline! I'd actually written most of this before the Superbowl; it wasn't until I was rewriting it that I realized I'd so flagrantly broken my own rule. Derp.

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  3. LOL. That baby picture got me. I've got the 1 out of 5 in my house. My daughter tasted her first lemon at 2 months old, and she jumped across the table after that thing. Crazy kids.

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    1. Hey, I said 4 out of 5 babies, so yours is the 5th! Some babies do love their lemons. Watch out for those babies. ;-)

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  4. Excellent piece, Stephanie! I believe we can grow up having a certain inclination to black and white judgments, but I know from my own experience how profoundly that attitude can change over time. You touched on something very important when you mentioned "mindfulness," because one of the most effective ways to change thinking, is by thinking about thinking.

    I continue to be amazed that people otherwise passionately committed to rational thinking will argue on one day that sexual congress of any kind can never be immoral, then argue on the next that rock and roll music is just wrong. I'm really not making that up!

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    1. I think it was you who pointed out to me recently how "rational thinkers" are extra good at justifying their own cognitive biases. Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole book on this, and at the end of it he said, you know, I still make all these System 1 mistakes. (Of which confusing disgust for immorality is one example.) You can't stop yourself doing it, you can just try to catch yourself some of the time.

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  5. Interesting post. As a middle school teacher I find myself in the crossfire of snap judgments all day long on any number of topics with little regard for any difference between personal taste and global valuations. Yet, I've also taught high school enough to know that most of them grow out of it and eventually gain perspective. Have you seen anything in what you've read about how people's judgments change as they age?

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    1. Excellent question, AS. I did find this, which corroborates your observation: http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2011/06/08/morality-changes-as-people-age

      "The study revealed that the extent of activation in different areas of the brain as participants were exposed to the morally laden videos changed with age. For young children, the amygdala, which is associated the generation of emotional responses to a social situation, was much more activated than it was in adults.

      "In contrast, adults' responses were highest in the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex areas of the brain that allow people to reflect on the values linked to outcomes and actions."

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