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

Reference:

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


You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Australopithecus Sediba: Early Human Or Ancient Ape?

    Australopithecus sediba is a South African member of the human family that lived about 1.9 million years ago. And that's about all we can say for sure about... Read more

    4 hours, 57 minutes ago by   Reprieve
    BIOLOGY, SCIENCE
  • What to Do About a Lack of Energy on Low Carb?

    What About Lack Energy Carb?

    Is a low-carb diet appropriate for someone who has had gastric-bypass surgery? Can you lose weight on low carb while taking insulin? And what to do about a... Read more

    5 hours, 16 minutes ago by   Dietdoctor
    DIET & WEIGHT, HEALTH, HEALTHY LIVING, MEDICINE
  • Comic Performer-turned-painter The Iceman Suddenly Outsells Van Gogh.

    Comic Performer-turned-painter Iceman Suddenly Outsells Gogh.

    The Artist formerly known as The Iceman: a brush with fameI have blogged before about the comic performance artist legend that is The Iceman. Read more

    5 hours, 46 minutes ago by   Thejohnfleming
    CULTURE, ENTERTAINMENT
  • My Ramadan Baby

    Ramadan Baby

    I remember the day like it was yesterday. The Islamabad sun, hot and bright, burned down on my mom and I as we walked to the hospital with my first-born -... Read more

    5 hours, 49 minutes ago by   Marilyngardner5
    RELIGION, SELF EXPRESSION
  • Stories from the Stacks Vol. 2: “Unidentified”

    Stories from Stacks Vol. “Unidentified”

    Contributed by Stacy Young, University of Akron student/CCHP Student Assistant.CCHP: What led you to us?SY: I previously attended the Museums and Archives... Read more

    6 hours, 13 minutes ago by   Chp
    HEALTH, HISTORY, PSYCHOLOGY
  • Spectre – Bond’s Navy Suit

    Spectre Bond’s Navy Suit

    Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre (2015).VitalsDaniel Craig as James Bond, British government agentMorocco, November 2015Film: Spectre Release Date:... Read more

    6 hours, 54 minutes ago by   Nguzan
    ENTERTAINMENT, TV & VIDEO
  • Should You #Golf With Better Players?

    Should #Golf With Better Players?

    Do you immediately feel anxious when approached by a single golfer or couple who wants to join you for the round? Chances are, you may have been with your... Read more

    6 hours, 56 minutes ago by   Golfforbeginners
    GOLF, SPORTS

Magazine