Don't try to drink this chocolate milk while reading the news (photo by Tracy Benjamin via Flickr)

Moral violations: hard to stomach? Hard to swallow?

Feelings of moral repugnance may affect us physically, researchers say

It’s common to refer to acts of business fraud or misbehaving politicians as disgusting, but according to new research being morally offended is not just a manner of speech. What we find morally offensive can be physically offensive as well.

The study, led by University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management Assistant Professor Cindy Chan, revealed that people are less likely to consume beverages if they are exposed to moral violations.

“The emotion we feel from experiencing a moral violation can profoundly affect our behaviour,” said Chan. “It causes us to consume less and highlights a psychological truth that moral violations can, in a manner of speaking, leave a bad taste in our mouths.”

Across a series of three studies participants were shown to drink less chocolate milk while watching a film portraying incest and listening to a news report about fraud, while their enjoyment of the chocolate milk went down as well. Participants were also shown to drink considerably less water when asked to write a story about cheating or theft.

Chan and her colleagues Leaf Van Boven (University of Colorado Boulder), Eduardo Andrade (FGV Rio de Janeiro) and Dan Ariely (Duke University) wanted to see if the effects of moral disgust follow the same pattern as core disgust. Core disgust has been shown to evoke a range of physical and behavioural responses to possible contaminants, including the feeling of nausea and revulsion as well as a withdrawal or avoidance of food.

“Moral violations stir up moral disgust and that disgust can cause us to lose our appetites because it functions as a way to protect us from ingesting something that may be harmful,” said Chan.

The research provides an important link in supporting the idea that moral violations are grounded in the emotion of core disgust, said Chan. She added that the research may also be of interest to marketers whose brands are associated with moral violations or whose products may be consumed in morally-charged environments.

“People may drink less coffee at a café if they are reading about corporate fraud in the newspaper,” she said. “They may consume less popcorn and pop at a movie theatre if they are watching a film about corruption and greed.”

The research is available online and is published in the current edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.  

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