Feelings Of Disgust Influence Moral Judgements In Some

Back when Thalia [Wheatley, a now professor at Dartmouth College] was a grad student at UVA, she had learned how to hypnotize people [...]. Thalia hypnotized people [highly hypnotizable subjects, selected from my Psych101 lecture class on the day I lectured about hypnosis] to feel a flash of disgust whenever they saw a certain word (take for half of the subjects; often for the others) [...]. While they were still in a trance Thalia instructed them that they would no be able to remember anything she had told them, and then she brought them out of the trance.

Once they were fully awake, we asked them to fill out a questionnaire packet in which they had to judge six short stories about moral violations. For each story, half of the subjects read a version that had their hypnotic code word embedded in it. For example, one story was about a congressman who claims to fight corruption, yet "takes bribes from the tobacco lobby." The other subjects read a version that was identical except for a few words (the congressman is "often bribed by the tobacco lobby"). On average, subjects judged each of the six stories to be more disgusting and morally wrong when their code word was embedded in the story. [...] By giving people a little artificial flash of negativity while they were reading the story, without giving them any new information, we made their moral judgements more severe.

The real surprise, though, came with a seventh story we tacked on almost as an afterthought, a story that contained no moral violation of any kind. It was about a student council president named Dan who is in charge of scheduling discussions between students and faculty. Half of our subjects read that Dan "tries to take topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion." The other half read the same story except that Dan "often picks topics" that appeal to professors and students. We added this story to demonstrate that there is a limit to the power of intuition. We predicted that subjects who felt a flash of disgust while reading this story would have to overrule their gut feelings. To condemn Dan would be bizarre.

Most of our subjects did indeed say that Dan's actions were fine. But a third of the subjects who had found their code word in the story still followed their gut feelings and condemned Dan. They said that what he did was wrong, sometimes very wrong. Fortunately, we had asked everyone to write a sentence or two explaining their judgments, and we found gems such as "Dan is a popularity-seeking snob" and "I don't know, it just seems like he's up to something." These subjects made up absurd reasons to justify judgments that they had made on the basis of gut feelings -- feelings Thalia had implanted with hypnosis.

-- Jonathan Haidt

from "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion"

Quoted on Sat Mar 31st, 2012