Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mind:  Taste Buds Reflect Feelings of Moral Disgust

Intimate contact with religious beliefs that differ from your own can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Literally.
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.

More on the wonders of hand washing ...

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.)

For more, see Taste Buds Reflect Feelings of Moral Disgust by Tom Jacobs, May 18, 2011 at Miller-McCune.

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