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It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

The role of disgust in opinion-forming

How do we go about forming opinions? As for me, when a moral or political decision comes up, I rationally sit down, weigh up the pros and cons of the options, and take the view that I think is best based on the evidence.

No, just kidding. I probably do it the other way around like everyone else. Form a snap opinion, and then hunt around for evidence to justify it. I don’t like the idea that this is how we operate, but it’s probably true all the same.

My first experience with political opinion-forming was the US election in 1972. My entire Republican family was voting for Nixon, but I thought I’d vote for McGovern. I didn’t even know what voting was. I’d seen the primaries, and I thought that when you voted, you had to go and stand next to your candidate so they could count you. There I imagined my family, standing with Nixon (with his fingers in ‘V for Victory’ pose), while on the other side of the room it was just George and five-year-old me. Why did I take the view I did? Why did they? I don’t know, but it is funny that no one in my family has changed voting patterns since then.

Sometimes my opinions lead on from prior opinions, or from values that I have, but where did they come from? I can’t say it’s anything more conscious than my ‘voting’ for McGovern all those years ago. I’ve often suspected that my opinions are based on some tendency, a leaning one way or the other that tips other decisions. But what tendency? Looking out for in-group v sympathy for out-group? Fearful or fearless? Authoritarian or democratic? Or something more primal?

New research highlights the role of simple ordinary disgust.

This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: That a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments. Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Psychologists like [Jonathan] Haidt are leading a wave of research into the so-called moral emotions — not just disgust, but others like anger and compassion — and the role those feelings play in how we form moral codes and apply them in our daily lives. A few, like Haidt, go so far as to claim that all the world’s moral systems can best be characterized not by what their adherents believe, but what emotions they rely on.

Primal emotions as atoms in the periodic table of our moral chemistry. Maybe these simple reactions are too simple to explain the complex range of opinions that grow out of them, but if opinion-forming goes back to something simpler, then disgust seems like a good candidate. I’ll be looking forward to more of this research.

2 Comments

  1. I totally believe that disgust plays a role in our conception of morality. But I think our wonderful ability to reason gives us the opportunity to move beyond this. For example, I find the idea of coprophilia thoroughly disgusting, but after careful reasoning I can conclude that it is not morally wrong. I just wish more people would move beyond "Of course it's wrong! It's just so… wrong!"

  2. I'm struck by the ability of the truly compassionate to put aside feelings of disgust to tend to those who need help – helping lepers, changing bandages, etc.

    But which comes first? Could we encourage tolerance by requiring children to play with bugs?

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