Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

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:

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.

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

ResearchBlogging.orgThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

Did you like this? Share it:

22 thoughts on “Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

  1. Pingback: A Theory of Mind

  2. William J. Keith

    And could a foreign idea be rendered less disgusting by being presented along with a palatable food — Cokes all around, or maybe cookies baking next door?

  3. Pingback: Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion | A Theory of Mind

  4. Erika Salomon

    William, that an excellent question, and one I think we’d love to try out in the lab! My guess is that it could work, given enough pairings. But it might actually make the cookies taste disgusting, like the second beverage in this study. We might not make it to the “enough pairings” threshold, since we tend to avoid food we’ve found disgusting in the past. Still, I like the idea of it. I’m already planning how I can steal some of Ryan’s cookies from the lab.

  5. Pingback: News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections: Moral Disgust, Experimental Controls, Smoking Addiction, and another DSM-5 Proposal

  6. David McShane

    You all would be interested in the web site
    Silvan Tomkins worked with the affect of disgust decades ago. Also the closely related one which he named dissmell which is an evolutionary adaption from the sense of smell with a comparable protective purpose.

  7. Erika Salomon

    David, thanks for the link! I’d actually not encountered dissmell before; it’s definitely intriguing. I will have to read some of Tomkins’s work to understand it better. (I admit to not being as well-versed in the emotion literature as my labmates.)

  8. Kamil

    I wonder if purification rituals were somehow invented to ease our moral disgust and then became a crucial part of our cultural inheritance or do they go deeper into our past and perhaps are transformed elements of “prehuman” psychology. Do people of all cultures share similar “rituals”. It would be interesting to check if there’re any differences between members of different cultures in strength of such a purification.

  9. admin Post author

    By “prehuman,” are you talking about psychological traits that antedate the genus Homo, which dates to about 2 million years ago? I am hesitant to speculate about what kinds of traits might have arisen in such deep time; we really don’t know much about the psychology of Ardipithecus or australopithecines, though we can make some reasonable inferences using primate analogies.

    A nice starting point for this kind of analysis is the classic article by Smuts and Watanabe, “Explaining Religion without Explaining It Away,” which proposes that baboons engage in a form of ritualized greeting. If baboons engage in proto-rituals, then I suppose hominids may have done the same. But I wonder what kind of repetitive hominid activity would have been related to disgust and ablution of some kind.

    It does seem that people across time and space have used water to cleanse. This makes perfect evolutionary and health sense, and it is easy to see how water washing might have become an important, cross-cultural and perhaps even universal ritual.

  10. Pingback: Rum and Reason » Editor’s Selections: Moral Disgust, Experimental Controls, Smoking Addiction, and another DSM-5 Proposal [The Thoughtful Animal]

  11. Kamil

    I realise that talking about australopithecines (or any other human ancestor, for that matter) is just a pure speculation and I don’t think it’s a right aproach. What I meant was – as You suggested – some comparison with our closest living relatives. I wonder do chimps are able to feal moral disgust the way similar to ours. And if so, is there anything even reminiscent of purifying rituals.
    I have in mind reminiscent of “magical thinking” like repetition of irrelevant sequence of gestures or moves just because they seemed to work previously.
    I don’t believe that water is essential for purifying rituals. For example in Arabic culture purification can be made by using sand. Perhaps it’s some kind of idea of pure thing in general (pure water, pure sand). On the other hand I think that blood was used in some cultures for those kind of rituals. And in other cultures blood was impure or even a taboo.

  12. admin Post author

    If you asked Frans de Waal, the chimp primatologist, he would say that chimps have something like proto-emotions. To have moral disgust in the human sense of the term, you probably need higher order reasoning and semantic memory, which chimps do not appear to have. I am not aware of any primates that do. I don’t think that the macaque washing of food counts as a purifying ritual; it is a fairly instrumental activity.

    Some nice work has been done on what looks like “superstition” in other animals. Skinner’s well known 1948 paper on pigeons is a case in point. This recent report discusses the issues and a new study.

  13. Barry McKenna

    Vern Kelly’s “Primer of Affect Psychology” is an excellent reference to begin with, for an exploration of the significance of affect. In anthropology, it is equally significant to consider that the eminent Walter Goldschmidt discovered a totally different path to the significance of human affect, near the close of his career, with “The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene.”

  14. admin Post author

    Thanks for mentioning Goldschmidt, who had an incredibly diverse career as an anthropologist; he worked with Native Americans in the 30s and 40s, African pastoralists in the 50s and 60s, and then moved on to all kinds of cool late career stuff. As for his intriguing book on Affect Hunger and Selfish Genes, Greg Downey over at Neuroanthropology did a nice writeup on it a few years ago. Here is the link. Note that our friend Tom Rees from Epiphenom weighed in with some comments.

  15. Erika Salomon

    Thanks, Kamil for your interesting questions. Cris has handled them much better than I could; it’s much more his area than mine.

    And Barry, thank you for the reading suggestions. I have much catching up to. My own reading thus far has been limited to a small selection of Ekman’s work and Haidt’s and Shweder’s more recent work on disgust. It offers but a limited perspective of the approaches and findings in the field.

  16. Barry McKenna

    Erika, I have been “pestering” Jon Haidt for a number of months now to read a bit about Tomkins and affect psychology, first because I believe that he offers an extremely important argument that in order to understand morality, politics and religion, we have to think of them as a single overriding concept. We’ll have to wait for his final thoughts on that until January with the release of his “The Righteous Mind.”

    My reading of Tomkins and more than two decades of thinking about this finds an overwhelming support and agreement with Jon’s general position about morality, politics and religion. With Tomkins’ affect psychology, however, Jon’s conceptualization of how “intuition” functions in relation to morality, politics and religion gets expanded and replaced with the concept of the last affect to evolve, shame-humiliation, which functions as an auxilliary to positive affect, as theorized by Silvan Tomkins.

    If you read Vern Kelly’s “Primer of Affect Psychology” you’ll find, on page 20, a detailed explanation of how the “affect” (not the emotion) of shame-humiliation functions. I offer a simpler and perhaps an even more fundamental explanation for why the “affect” (read “biology,” not “emotion,” which is “biography) of shame-humiliation was adaptive in our evolution:

    When we (were) in the thrall of positive affect, such as eating or having sex, to our great benefit and enjoyment, if we could not quickly make a transition from those most important functions, to focusing on a sudden threat in our environment to our safety, we were at our detriment to survive and continue our evolution.

    So, the auxiliary affect of shame-humilation (the two hyphenated words refer to a range of potential), auxiliary to the positive affects, and the last of our biological affects to evolve, was supremely adaptive for our survival. As with many adaptations, its evolution continued and became an integral part of our socialization, as well, protecting us from banishment and almost certain death with loss of our group’s protection, but now today, also, constantly battering many, if not most, of us because of the constant social and media exposure to our potential lack of “measuring up.” Again, evolution has both benefits and non-adaptive effects.

    This concept of affect’s relation to our biology and our evolution is likely the most important key to understanding virtually every social and political challenge that we face, and their potential resolution.

    Ekman’s work is also extremely important. However, unless one acquires that link from Darwin to Tomkins to Ekman, one misses vital components to the conceptualization. That potential missing component can be found in Ekman’s “Afterword” to his edited third edition of Darwin’s “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Paul has graciously made this “Afterword,” like most of his work, available at his site:

  17. Erika Salomon

    Thank you, again. I am now planning to make affect an important point of study for myself over the next few months. Its role in religious cognition is something I have been discussing with some of my colleagues at Illinois, and I think my own research (on religious affiliation and agentic versus non-agentic religious concepts) would benefit from an increased focus on affect. I’ve downloaded the Ekman work you posted and Kelly’s primer and will dive into them this weekend!

  18. admin Post author

    After Erika does all that reading, we can look forward to several splendid posts on her blog which summarize and synthesize everything, and then situate it within the context of her own research. Right Erika?!

  19. Pingback: Affect Week | A Theory of Mind

  20. Pingback: Affect Week, Part 2: Silvan Tomkins’s Affects | A Theory of Mind

Leave a Reply