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:

So, 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).

Russell, P.S. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Bodily moral disgust: What it is, how it is different from anger, and why it is an unreasoned emotion. Psychological Bulletin 139, 328 (2013).

Russell, P.S. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Moral anger is more flexible than moral disgust. Social Psychological and Personality Science 2, 360-364 (2011).

Russell, P.S. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Social justifications for moral emotions: When reasons for disgust are less elaborated than for anger. Emotion 11, 637 (2011).

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