Biology Magazine

Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

Posted on the 06 June 2011 by Cris

Imagine you are dining at a friend’s home. Your host is excited because she has prepared a special dish for you. When dinner is finally served, you are surprised to see a whole egg on your plate and when you open the egg, you are even more surprised to see this:

Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

Source: John Young, UK (Creative Commons)

That’s balut, a dish of southeastern Asia. It’s made by boiling a fertilized duck egg. If you’re like me—an American raised on hamburgers and chicken casseroles—your first reaction on seeing balut might not be to salivate. In fact, you might feel disgust. But to people in many cultures, balut is delicious.

Disgust is a powerful emotion that serves a protective purpose. It is closely related to our fear of contagion and has been subject to intense evolutionary selection pressure. This is why we’re disgusted by things that might make us sick, such as rotten food and filth. We are less likely to get sick if we avoid things we find disgusting.

But what disgusts us is also subject to our cultural environment. We’re more likely to find familiar foods delicious and unfamiliar foods disgusting, which is why your reaction to the balut pictured above was probably different depending on whether it’s something you’ve eaten a hundred times before or something totally new.

Disgust is not, however, limited to biological domains: aversion spills over into other aspects of our lives. It is but a short symbolic step from intuitive microbiology (“Gross, don’t touch that!”) to moral intuition (“Gross, don’t do that!”). This explains why we find violations of moral rules, such as unfair division of money, disgusting.

Just as our tastes in food vary across cultures, our moral “tastes” vary in the same way. A recent study suggests that we can feel disgust not only for others’ foods and behaviors, but for their beliefs as well.

In the lab where I work, Ryan Ritter and Jesse Preston studied “belief disgust” using a novel experimental method. Under the guise of a consumer marketing survey, participants drank what they thought were two slightly different versions of a beverage—really the same drink each time, an especially sour lemonade. After tasting each beverage, participants gave their reactions to it, rating how sour, sweet, bitter, delicious, and disgusting it was. In between drinks, supposedly to give them time to cleanse their palates, participants completed a handwriting task. And this is where it gets interesting.

For the handwriting task, each participant copied a passage from one of three texts: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Qur’an, or Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Because all the participants were Christian, the second two passages (Qur’an and Dawkins) are strong endorsements of ideas antithetical to their own beliefs. The dictionary passage, in contrast, is neutral with respect to their religious beliefs.

The researchers wanted to know if Christians would feel more disgust after reading the outgroup passages than the neutral passage. This is where the beverage tasting is important. If participants rated the second beverage as more or less disgusting than the first, this would be evidence that the passage affected feelings of disgust (since the beverages were identical).

In the Dawkins and Qur’an conditions, participants rated the second drink as more disgusting than the first. In the dictionary condition, however, the second drink was actually rated as slightly less disgusting than the first.

In a second experiment, when participants were given a chance to clean their hands (with a wipe) after using them to write the outgroup texts, there was no difference in disgust between the two drinks. This experiment also used a Bible passage instead of the dictionary passage. Without the hand cleaning, there was no difference between the drinks; however, when participants cleaned their hands after writing the Bible passage, the second drink was actually less disgusting than the first.

From a research perspective, these are exciting results. They show that foreign ideas can trigger the powerful (and largely subconscious) emotion of disgust. They also suggest that moral disgust can be alleviated or “purified” by simple acts such as handwashing. This may speak to the origin of certain rituals, many of them religious.

Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

From a personal perspective, these results are disconcerting. If our intuitive response to outgroup beliefs is disgust (a powerful moral emotion), reducing prejudice and increasing cooperation between groups seems a difficult task.

Then, again, maybe this is good news. Now that we know more about causes of cultural conflict, we may be able to use this knowledge to design interventions with the goal of reducing intuitive (or irrational) disgust responses. After all, if we can learn to eat the foods of other cultures, could we not also learn to “digest” their ideas?

– Guest Post by Erika Salomon, A Theory of Mind


Ritter, Ryan, & Preston, Jesse Lee (2011). Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology : 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.006

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