Having a bad taste in your mouth from food or drink can lead you to making stronger and harsher judgments of other people and their behaviors, suggests new research.
In the study, after participants tasted something they considered physically disgusting, they were more likely to think something was morally disgusting. Interestingly, this effect was significantly stronger in people who were politically conservative than in those with liberal views.
The experiment, published in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science, was the first to examine how taste perception affects moral judgments. It recruited 57 college students (41 women, 16 men) and asked them to drink a bitter-tasting liquid (Swedish bitters, an herbal remedy for digestion), a sweet beverage (berry punch) or a neutral fluid (water). Students drank one swift shot of the drink before doing a moral judgment task and had a second shot halfway through it so the liquid's taste lingered in their mouths.
During the task, participants were asked for their impressions of six morally murky behaviors, from a man eating his dead dog (!) to second cousins sleeping together to a lawyer trawling for potential clients in a hospital. They rated their opinions on a scale from 0 meaning "not at all morally wrong" to 100 for "extremely morally wrong."
Scientists found that volunteers who drank the disgusting, bitter beverage also expressed the most disapproval of the moral situations. Their average rating for the six scenarios was 78 (out of 100) compared to 62 in those who downed water and 60 in folks who threw back sweet shots.
"I was a bit surprised that the sweet beverage did not elicit significantly kinder judgments when compared to the water condition [which was the control]," says Kendall Eskine, a doctoral candidate in the psychology department of Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, NY, and the lead author of this study. "I was hoping that sweeter beverages would make people sweeter," he says, but it did not perhaps because the berry punch was more tart than sweet, something Eskine plans to change in follow-up research.
Even so, Eskine says that our sensory experiences, such as taste, play a very important role in our cognitive lives, even in areas like morality, which have typically been considered "reason-based" fields. These bodily experiences, he suspects, might be biasing people's thoughts and judgments.
Although physical disgust appeared to influence a person's moral disgust, scientists don't yet know how long the effect lasts. "That's one of our top questions going forward," Eskine says.
Researchers also asked study participants about their political leanings. They found that conservatives were significantly harsher in their moral decision-making after the bitter drink than those given the sweet or control beverage. Other studies have suggested that people with conservative views are more sensitive to disgust than liberals.
One of the moral foundations conservatives rely on is "purity," explains Eskine. If conservatives care more about purity than liberals, then "inducing disgust [in conservatives] will activate their purity norms, which in turn can influence their perception of moral events," he says.
What's unclear, says Eskine, is whether liberals have a similar purity foundation but in different domains, such as the purity of their food.
What do you think of this research, readers? (Before answering that -- maybe take a gulp of some sweet soda or juice.)
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