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Taste Buds Reflect Feelings of Moral Disgust

New research finds moral disgust can elicit a physical reaction, changing our evaluation of a beverage.
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Intimate contact with religious beliefs that differ from your own can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Literally.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which — depending on how you interpret the results — has either grim or moderately encouraging implications for interfaith relations.

University of Illinois psychologists Ryan S. Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston found self-described Christians were more likely to describe a beverage as disgusting following exposure to an incompatible belief system.

This provides more evidence that the emotion of disgust — an evolutionary adaptation that presumably grew out of the need to avoid spoiled food and unsanitary conditions — can be activated by ideas that “contaminate” our cherished beliefs.

In their colorfully title paper "Gross Gods and Icky Atheism," published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Ritter and Preston describe two experiments. The first featured 82 undergraduates, all self-described Christians.

“Participants were told that they would complete two separate studies: a consumer marketing survey and an investigation into the relation between handwriting and personality,” the researchers write. “As part of the consumer marketing study, participants were asked to taste and rate two slightly different versions of a beverage.”

In fact, the beverages were identical: One cup of lemon juice mixed into one gallon of water. At the beginning of the experiment, each tasted the liquid and rated, on a 1-to-7 scale, its sweetness, bitterness, sourness, deliciousness — and the degree to which they found it disgusting.

Next came the handwriting portion of the experiment, which “was framed as an unrelated task administered between the two beverages, ostensibly so the participants would have time to refresh their palate.” Participants were asked to copy one of three short texts: A passage from the Quran; an excerpt from atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion; or a portion of the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

After finishing that assignment, participants tasted the second, purportedly different beverage, and rated it on those same 1-to-7 scale.

The students “showed an increased disgust response following contact with rejected religious beliefs (i.e., Islam and atheism), but not a neutral text,” the researchers report. “Other ratings of the drink (e.g., sweetness, sourness) were not as strongly influenced by writing the passage, indicating that the effect was limited to disgust responses, and not taste in general.”

The second experiment (featuring 206 participants) repeated the first, with two changes: A Bible verse was substituted for the neutral dictionary preface, and half the participants were given an antiseptic hand wipe and asked to use it between taking the handwriting test, and tasting the second drink. (They were told this was part of the consumer marketing phase of the experiment.)

Once again, copying a passage describing an opposing belief system led to higher levels of disgust when the students evaluated the second drink. “But the effect was eliminated when participants washed their hands,” the researchers write.

“This result is consistent with the hypothesis that hand washing would help restore a sense of purity following contact with a rejected belief.” (A 2010 study linked hand washing to harsh moral judgments.)

So what are the implications of this? Ritter and Preston admit they aren’t sure, since they don’t know “what precise aspect of the procedure was responsible for the participants’ disgust response.” Was it simply exposure to the alternative set of ideas that brought it on? Or was it the fact the participants created handwritten copies of the passages, in a sense committing heresy?

“If purity is compromised upon merely contemplating ideas that conflict with one’s own sacred beliefs, this suggests a bleak potential for peaceful intergroup relations,” the researchers write. “How can religious groups hope to overcome their differences in culture and beliefs if they are also divided by gut-level disgust that repels them further apart?

“On the other hand, if purity is only compromised when actively copying a passage that conflicts with one’s own sacred beliefs, this suggests a relatively optimistic potential for peaceful inter-religious relations,” they add. “Members of different religious groups may be able to maintain a sense of personal purity even when other beliefs and practices are part of the social milieu, as long as one is not required to actively participate in the out-group religious tradition.”

That crucial distinction will have to be determined through additional research, which is currently underway. But either way, this study provides the first evidence that moral disgust can affect our taste buds. To paraphrase the classic Campbell’s Soup commercials: Mmm, mmm, God.

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