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More on disgust: Both liberals and conservatives *feel* it, but what contribution is it really making to their moral appraisals?

It’s been far far too long-- over a week!-- since we discussed disgust and its relationship to political ideology.  Part of the reason is that after the guest post by Yoel Inbar, the prospects for finding someone who could actually say anyting that would enlarge the knowledge of this site's 14 billion regular readers (NOTE: JOKE; DO NOT CIRCULATE OR ATTRIBUTE “14 billion" FIGURE) seemed extremely remote.  But we did it! Today, yet another sterling guest post on this topic from Dr. Sophie Russell, a psychologist at the University of Surrey. 

Russell has published a number of extremely important studies on the contribution that emotions make to moral judgment. She also is the co-auhtor—along with Roger Giner-Sorrola, another leading moral psychologist who has collaborated with Russell in the study of disgust—of an important review paper that concludes that disgust is a highly unreliable source of moral guidance generally and a source of moral perception distinctively inimical to the values of a “liberal society because it ignores factors . . . such as intentionality, harm, and justifiability.” That paper figured in the interesting discussion of Inbar’s essay.  Now she offers her own views: 

Sophie Russell:

Sophie RussellSo, is disgust reserved for conservatives? My answer to this question is no.  But rather, liberals and conservatives may show differences in their associations between disgust and moral judgement.

People feel disgust toward many different acts (such as incest, sexual fetishes, eating lab grown meat etc.), but this does not necessarily mean that they think it is morally wrong too.

I think what we should be asking ourselves is how easily can individuals separate their feelings of disgust from judgements of wrongdoing.

One thing that is clear from some of our research is that disgust has a different relationship with moral judgement than anger, in terms of how intertwined they are.  For example, we have found that after individuals consider the current context they change their feelings of anger but not their feelings of disgust toward harmful acts and bodily norm violations, and changes in anger relate to changes in moral judgement (Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2011).

In another line of research we have also found that feelings of anger are associated with the ability to come up with mitigating circumstances for immoral acts but disgust is unrelated to whether or not people can imagine mitigating circumstances(Piazza, Russell, & Sousa, 2012). The story from both lines of research is that in general people can disentangle their feelings of disgust from judgements of wrongness, while this is not the case with anger.  It seems as if their feelings of disgust remain.  So, should we care if someone finds something disgusting? I think we should still be concerned about this because disgust is a withdrawal emotion, so people will still want to avoid the person or thing they may find disgusting, they just may not have the moral conviction that others need to agree with them.

Our findings follow on from a long laundry list of appraisals that work to make sure that anger is properly directed, such as: Is the behaviour justified; Is the behaviour intentional? Is the behaviour harmful, Is the behaviour unfair etc. (see Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2013 for a review). It is less clear how we assess if something is disgusting depending on the current context; that is, what is the essence or concept that makes something disgusting in a given context. It seems as if judgements of disgust are tied to the specific person or object whilst anger is associated with more abstract appraisals of the current situation.

Supporting this distinction through the analysis of post-hoc justifications, we have found that people find it very hard to articulate why they think non-normative sexual acts are disgusting (Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2011).

I think this effect will be the same for both conservatives and liberals because essentially this phrase ‘X is disgusting’ serves a very strong communicative function and we are not pushed/motivated to explain what we mean.  For this reason we may use this phrase towards things that are not literally evoking the disgust emotion, in order to signal that we want to break off all ties from this thing.

Both conservatives and liberals use this phrase frequently because of its potency, but this phrase does not necessarily mean that they actually feel physical revulsion.

I think another difference between anger and disgust that can cause a divide between conservatives and liberals is that anger is mainly relevant when there is a clear victim while disgust is relevant to “victimless” acts between consenting individuals (Piazza & Russell, in preparation).  

For example, in this research we looked at the impact of individuals giving consent toa range of sexual behaviours, such as necrophilia, incest, and sexual relations with a transgender individual. We found that people feel significantly more anger toward a wrongdoer when consent is absent versus present, and this relationship is mediated by justice appraisals.

On the other hand, individuals feel significantly more disgust when the recipient of wrongdoing consents to action versus not, thus, we feel disgust towards both people that consented to the act. This relationship is mediated by judgments of perverse character, which supports the view that disgust is based on judgments of the person or object, rather than the outcome or situation.  Thus, it seems as if anger is the more relevant emotion when there is a clear victim.

So, my conclusion is that for both liberals and conservatives, disgust is focused on the person while anger is focused on the circumstances and consequences, which is problematic if we want people to consider changes across time, context, and relationships.

On a separate note, something that is also interesting to me and I would like to leave with you,  is that when I include things like political orientation or disgust sensitivity as moderators when I conduct studies in the UKI find that they have very little to no influence on the effects that I find. However, if I include them whilst collecting an American Mturk sample they gain importance. So, I am really interested to know what you think about this.


Piazza, J., Russell, P.S. & Sousa, P. Moral emotions and the envisaging of mitigating circumstances for wrongdoing. Cognition & Emotion 27, 707-722 (2012).

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Reader Comments (8)

I have my standard questions.
What are the working definitions of 'disgust' and 'anger' in this study? Are the definitions the same for the liberals and conservatives?
At a different level, what biologists characterize as disgust and what they characterize as anger have very different functions. Anger is about immediate avoidance of danger while disgust is about avoiding substances, usually foods, that would make you sick. Given this definition you would expect anger and disgust to overlap sometimes without being correlated.
At an even smaller scale level, once I started to think about disgust after a previous post, I realized that I have many distinct feelings under the umbrella of disgust and many distinct kinds of anger. In each of these categories, the emotion can have many different intensities.
How do the studies cover the complexities under both words?
How are all these variables considered in the above study.

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

So.. "disgust is focused on the person while anger is focused on the circumstances and consequences" = don't (be disgusted by) the player, (be angry) at the game?

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

when I conduct studies in the UKI find that they have very little to no influence on the effects that I find. However, if I include them whilst collecting an American Mturk sample they gain importance. So, I am really interested to know what you think about this.

How do you build your UK samples? Online?


August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

@ Eric--

Needless to say, issues of how to specify & measure the emotion types loom large in this literature.

Some of your questions also came up in discussion of Inbar post, and in discussion I offered a partial answer & referred to a great review paper on this issue -- one that actually reaches conclusions different from Russell!

August 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Eric I think a feature of our research is that we don’t rely solely on ratings of emotion word items (e.g., disgust, grossed-out, anger, infuriated etc.), but also agreement with how much participants feel emotion facial expressions depicted in photos. So, all participants fill in both types of emotion items. A huge problem is that there is a large amount of overlap in terms of what people infer from the emotion word terms ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’ (at least in the English language), also researchers sometimes add moral connotations, which creates problems too- see Russell, Piazza & Giner-Sorolla, 2012, which discusses this problem. You are right that with anger there are different intensities that we can experience and we have ways of expressing this easily, e.g., frustration, angry, outraged. I think this also comes out through the way that there are many different behavioural outcomes of anger (e.g., reparation versus aggression versus avoidance). On the other hand, it is interesting that in the English Language that disgust is represented by different ‘kinds of disgust’, such as grossed-out, disgust, and tends to lead to avoidance and purification behaviours. Generally, the story seems to be that anger and disgust frequently co-occur but have different outcomes and expressions.

Isabel most of these UK samples I am talking about are online, sometimes with university students

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSophie Russell

Sophie -

A huge problem is that there is a large amount of overlap in terms of what people infer from the emotion word terms ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’ (at least in the English language),...

Are you aware of languages (cultures) where there is not the same degree of overlap between the words that most closely approximate anger and disgust, respectively?

I'm asking because I'm interested in knowing whether the phenomena you're describing generalize across different cultures.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


If you are using college students & comparable convenience samples for non-US studies, you might not be getting enough variance in political outlooks & related disgust sensibilities relative to observe effects you can ge w/ US general population sample (although whether you are getting "gen population" w/ M Turk is doubtful; indeed, not even clear it is "US" even when that's what you ask for...).

The lack of variance in sample will aggravate the statistical power problems you'll have if the convenience samples are small N ones

August 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Disgust is the cocaine that keeps the skeptical army marching. And we're not going to run out of it any time soon; we've yet to hit peak disgust.

With all due respect for your work on cultural cognition in relation to climate change, Dan, no such theory will ever be able to account for the fact that I'm a denier, will it? I'm every bit as egalitarian-communitarian as you, and so are most of my friends and family. They're not skeptics, mind you—I came out in spite of, not because of, the prevailing view in my cultural circle—but thousands of other people on the left are, including some very intelligent figures who aren't easily ignored. (Steven McIntyre and Freeman Dyson come to mind.)

Your work shows no indication yet that you've figured out, or even tried to guess, what might make climate skeptics tick outside the neat ideological categories we're supposed to inhabit.

So you're missing something, aren't you? Your cultural-cognition model has had some empirical, statistical success, making it plausible at first glance—but all the counterexamples must trouble you. I'm sure you realise you haven't really cracked the code yet. Don't you?

What is it that makes us refuse to believe? It can't be cultural cognition, because we come from the same broad spectrum of cultures (albeit in different proportions) and have the same broad range of cultural values as the people who do believe. So what is it?

We've been trying to tell you the answer. It's not a secret. Any believer who could bring him or herself to read just a handful of apostasy narratives would easily spot the common theme. But since believalism forbids that kind of research, I'll just tell you the answer.

Revulsion. Revulsion and hatred of pseudo-science. This is explained in painstaking, pornographic detail in the late Hal Lewis' magisterial resignation letter to the APS. But since you're not allowed to read such texts, I'll just quote the key passage:

"It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford’s book organizes the facts very well.) I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist."

I'm more than happy to keep telling you this until you believe me, Dan.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Keyes

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