Dr. Simone Schnall at the University of Plymouth in the UK, has found some, er, interesting ways to study human’s visceral responses to our thoughts and emotions. Specifically, she’s recently headed up two studies on the link between moral judgement and disgust. As I understand it (and I mostly don’t, as there are no plants or fungi involved), her work suggests our sense of morality is closely tied to, perhaps evolved out of, our sense of disgust. Which, when you think about it, makes sense–morality is deeply ingrained in our psyche, it had to come out of something less abstract, and we’re often viscerally disgusted when faced with something morally repugnant. The trick, though, is separating the two.
And that’s where the fun starts. In order to separate respondent’s moral judgment from their sense of disgust, the research team came up with sets of moral conundra to present to participants, while physically grossing them out in a variety of effective, but morally neutral ways. For example:
A team led by Simone Schnall asked students walking outside on a college campus to answer questions about scenarios like this, rating them on a scale of 1 (extremely immoral) to 7 (perfectly okay). The catch was that they had rigged a trash can near the experimenters’ desk with fart spray. Some respondents read and rated the stories in the presence of a mild stink (four sprays of fart scent), some had a strong scent (eight sprays), and a lucky third group completed the experiment with no scent at all.
See kids, science is fun! In addition to using lab-grade fart spray, they tried a variety of other ways toset off subjects internal gross-o-meter: having them answer the questionairre in a dirty, sticky office piled high with empty pizza boxes, making them watch a ‘disgustng’ movie first, or asking them to recall a disgusting memory. They all worked–when people were grossed out, they judged the charachters in the researcher’s morality thought-experiments more harshly.
And what were these fictional people up to? Breaking and bending a wide variety of taboos: keeping money from a found wallet, filming people without their consent, killing one person to save 5, having children with their cousins, and masturbating with kittens. Yes, I said masturbating with kittens. As in:
Matthew is playing with his new kitten late one night. He is wearing only his boxer shorts, and the kitten sometimes walks over his genitals. Eventually, this arouses him, and he begins to rub his bare genitals along the kitten’s body. The kitten purrs, and seems to enjoy the contact. How wrong is it for Matthew to be rubbing himself against the kitten?
Needless to say, folks who had just been fumigated with canned fart were in no mood to be lienient toward hypothetical kitten fetishists.