…Or unless I did something else you make you disgusted.*
We would all like to think that we’re very rational. That our judgements, particularly our moral judgements, arise from things that we’ve carefully considered, whether it be because you follow a holy text or consider the work of Hume or Mill to be the pinnacles of ethical thinking.
But when it comes down to cases, how we judge our coworker’s love affair may have something to do with our thinking, but a bit more to do with how dirty the breakroom is, whether you just thought about how your friend was vomiting the other week, and…whether anyone in the room recently farted.
Schnall et al. “Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment” Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2008.
We all know now that there’s a social psychology of flatulence (the paper for today’s post came from the comments section of that one, where someone pointed out a NY Times Op Ed using farts!), that people judge other people who are caught in the act of the gas pass. But what about the way that your fart influences judgements…of other people?
For their first experiment, the authors of this study took a bunch of Stanford undergrads, and some novelty fart spray (I would love to know how much they went through). They took the students, and gave them a series of moral vignettes (do you approve of legal marriage for first cousins, what about cousins sleeping together, driving rather than walking to work for an easy distance, or a movie theater releasing a morally controversial film). The students had to say how disgusted they were by each thing.
And they also had to note whether they smelled anything…funny. For 40 students, they had nothing unusual, for another 40, there were 4 fart sprays (in a plastic bag in a can hidden 6 feet from the person), and the last 40 got 8 sprays of the good stuff.
And what happened? Well, in both the light and strong spray conditions, the students definitely smelled something fishy (or farty). But they also showed more DISGUST at the moral scenarios presented. And this was for all the different moral conditions. The students turned up their noses more at driving to work and at cousin sex when the fart smell was present.
But is it just a smell thing? No! People were more severe in their judgements when faced with a disgusting room (with a gross old chair, a sticky desk and filled trashcan with greasy items), passing more stringent judgement in another set of test scenarios (these involving things like a guy getting sexual pleasure from playing with a kitten and a group of plane crash survivors going Donner Party).
But what was interesting about this experiment was that the people who were most stringent were also the most conscious of their own disgust at the room they were in. Apparently if you are more of a slob (or unlikely to notice), the effect will be weaker.
The effects on moral judgement also persisted when students were asked to write about a time when they were grossed out or disgusted, or when they were asked to watch the toilet scene from Trainspotting.
So in all conditions, you’re going to be more severe in your moral judgements if you’re feeling disgusted. Your moral judgements may not be as pure as you think. So next time you’re about to pass judgement? Check and see if anyone farted. Just in case.
Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G., & Jordan, A. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (8), 1096-1109 DOI: 10.1177/0146167208317771
*Author’s note: I am currently reading Anna Karenina. Because I feel like I should. It’s really, really great. But having read how Anna is treated in society, and now reading this paper, I have to wonder if she would have been treated better if everyone had worked REALLY hard not to fart.