Daily Archives: February 2, 2014

How Disgusted Are You?

women at bath and bodyworks

cleanliness is next to godliness… but where are the men?

Continuing, I guess, my posts on the link between morality and religion, I came across another study that linked two concepts that I should have seen the connection to but didn’t. Now that I’ve read it, it makes total sense.

I’ve read Jonathan Haidt years ago about the five moral dimensions that underlie morality. Here’s one that he wrote back in 2007 concerning his findings:

In my dissertation and my other early studies, I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.

I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.


Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures, Craig Joseph (at Northwestern University) and I concluded that there were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls “coalitional psychology”);authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.

My UVA colleagues Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and I have collected data from about 7,000 people so far on a survey designed to measure people’s endorsement of these five foundations. In every sample we’ve looked at, in the United States and in other Western countries, we find that people who self-identify as liberals endorse moral values and statements related to the two individualizing foundations primarily, whereas self-described conservatives endorse values and statements related to all five foundations. It seems that the moral domain encompasses more for conservatives—it’s not just about Gilligan’s care and Kohlberg’s justice. It’s also about Durkheim’s issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority, and sacredness.

I hope you’ll accept that as a purely descriptive statement. You can still reject the three binding foundations normatively—that is, you can still insist that ingroup, authority, and purity refer to ancient and dangerous psychological systems that underlie fascism, racism, and homophobia, and you can still claim that liberals are right to reject those foundations and build their moral systems using primarily the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations.

But just go with me for a moment that there is this difference, descriptively, between the moral worlds of secular liberals on the one hand and religious conservatives on the other. There are, of course, many other groups, such as the religious left and the libertarian right, but I think it’s fair to say that the major players in the new religion wars are secular liberals criticizing religious conservatives. Because the conflict is a moral conflict, we should be able to apply the four principles of the new synthesis in moral psychology.

So the five moral principles are harm/care, fairness/justice, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. As Haidt wrote above, conservative and thus religious morality focuses on more than just fairness or harm/care; religiosity also includes a concentration on things like respect for authority, sanctity, and loyalty. Indeed, when people do something immoral, washing themselves makes them feel better about it. Note that the Greek “etymology” of the odd word Nazoraios (i.e. “Nazarene”, as in Jesus the Nazarene; Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος) is caught up with the concept of sanctity.

Like I said, I should have predicted this; if women are more religious than men, and if Haidt’s observations are correct, then women should show more concern for more or all five axes of morality than men. And that seems to be the case:

The feeling of disgust likely evolved as a mechanism to detect and avoid pathogens in the environment, but it also may explain why some people are more socially conservative than others, according to newly published research.


Across four separate studies, the researcher found that those who were more easily disgusted and more afraid of contamination were more likely to be both female and socially conservative. The four studies were comprised of 980 undergraduate students in total.

The link between disgust and conservativism is bolstered by previous studies.

Research published 2012 in Social Psychological and Personality Science found disgust sensitivity was positively associated with political conservatism and the intention to vote for Republican president John McCain. Another study published 2011 in PLoS One found conservatives had stronger physiological reactions than liberals when shown gross pictures. Research published in the journal Emotion showed that disgust sensitivity was associated with unfavorable moral judgments about same-sex relationships.


Disgust, in turn, encourages “the preference of ingroup members over outgroup members, because outgroup members pose a greater disease threat,” the researchers wrote. This preference towards members of one’s own group manifests itself as socially conservative attitudes, like religious fundamentalism.

“In other words, disgust sensitivity prepares individuals to have a negative perception of others who may be a source of contamination and to avoid them.”

It also seems like people can smell certain diseases, and women generally have a better sense of smell than men; psychopaths generally have a worse sense of smell than the normal population.


And here’s another conclusion that should follow necessarily from the fact that women are more religious than men, but is at first glance counterintuitive. If women are more religious than men, and the values that make people tend towards religion — like sanctity and ingroup/outgroup thinking — also make people tend towards conservative views like racism, then it must follow that religious people are more racist than non-religious people. This is true; racism and religiosity have a positive correlation. If that’s the case, then it must also follow that women are more racist than men. That also seems to be true:

My Race-Based Valentine. Why online dating is the last refute of overt racial preferences.

This Valentine’s Day … relatively few women on mainstream dating sites will bother to respond to overtures from men of Asian descent. Likewise, black women will be disproportionately snubbed by men of all races. … requires users to identify their ethnicity; like eHarmony, it considers members’ racial preferences when suggesting matches. lets users filter their searches by race. The site’s profiles include space to indicate interest (or lack thereof) in various racial and ethnic groups. …

Among the women, 73% stated a [racial] preference. Of these, 64% selected whites only, while fewer than 10% included East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians or blacks. … 59% of [men] stated a racial preference. Of these, nearly half selected Asians, but fewer than 7% did for black women. … In October, [], 80% of whose members choose to input their race, studied the messaging patterns of more than a million users and concluded on its official blog that “racism is alive and well.”


Although a considerable body of research explores alterations in women’s mating-relevant preferences across the menstrual cycle, investigators have yet to examine the potential for the menstrual cycle to influence intergroup attitudes. We examined the effects of changes in conception risk across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias and found that increased conception risk was positively associated with several measures of race bias. This association was particularly strong when perceived vulnerability to sexual coercion was high. Our findings highlight the potential for hypotheses informed by an evolutionary perspective to generate new knowledge about current social problems an[d] avenue[s] that may lead to new predictions in the study of intergroup relations.

Which seems counterintuitive since both research and personal anecdote suggest that women show more concern for race issues than men:

Studies of gender differences in orientation toward others have found that women are more strongly concerned than men with affective processes and are more likely to be other-focused, while men tend to be more instrumental and more self-oriented. Recent research has extended this finding to include gender differences in racial attitudes, and reports that women also are more favorable than men in their racial outlooks.

Though I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive, if the norms of the group that someone belongs to include racial tolerance. Meaning that collectivist tendencies in a group that values racial concern might lead to signaling racial tolerance but not actually practicing it.

* (a word reserved for banishing someone to the status of the outgroup, and seems to have overwhelming popularity among women. Not so much among men)

Comments Off on How Disgusted Are You?

Posted by on February 2, 2014 in cognitive science, morality

NeuroLogica Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Slate Star Codex



Matthew Ferguson Blogs

The Wandering Scientist

What a lovely world it is

NT Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion


Understand your mind with the science of psychology -


Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science

Maximum Entropy

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Skepticism, Properly Applied

Criticism is not uncivil


My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Research Digest

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Disrupting Dinner Parties

Feminism is for everyone!

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

The New Oxonian

Religion and Culture for the Intellectually Impatient

The Musings of Thomas Verenna

A Biblioblog about imitation, the Biblical Narratives, and the figure of Jesus

The Syncretic Soubrette

Snarky musings from an everyday woman