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Researchers Link Feelings Of Disgust And Ethical Behavior


Next, we examine what happens when you feel disgusted. Maybe you've come across rotting food or a bathroom that's dirty. Well, there's new research exploring how that kind of experience affects the ethical choices you might make afterward. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke about this with NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Disgust seems to make people behave in more unethical ways, Steve. This is research by Karen Winterich, Vikas Mittal and Andrea Morales. They conducted a series of experiments. In one of them, they had volunteers view a scene from the movie "Trainspotting," and the movie showed a disgustingly dirty toilet. Other volunteers watched a documentary about a coral reef. The researchers find that volunteers who watched the disgusting scene are more likely to cheat a partner in a game they play right afterwards. In another experiment, the researchers asked people to remember the most disgusting event in their lives while other people wrote about a typical evening. They're then given a word unscrambling task where one of the problems is unsolvable. And the volunteers are asked to report how many of them have solved the problems. More than twice as many people who recalled a disgusting event reported that they had solved this unsolvable problem compared to those who'd just been asked to remember their typical evening.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Wait a minute. So I smell rotting fruit and something happens right afterward, I'm way more likely to lie and cheat than I would've been before.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly what the research is saying. And they're arguing that the feeling of disgust triggers feelings of self-preservation - wanting to protect yourself from the thing that's disgusting. And the researchers are speculating that these feelings of self-preservation translate more generally into feelings of selfishness, of looking out for yourself and this produces a willingness to cheat.

INSKEEP: The most incredible thing about this, Shankar Vedantam, is that the one incident has nothing to do with the other, at least on a rational level. The rotting fruit in the trash can has nothing to do with the person I encounter shortly afterward.

VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly right, Steve. But it's another example of this mountain of studies that suggest that the social context in the social world changes our behavior even when we're not aware of it.

INSKEEP: That's disgusting.

VEDANTAM: And I need to go find someone to cheat right now, Steve.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm getting out of here as quick as I can. That's NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam.

GREENE: And you can follow Shankar on Twitter at @HiddenBrain. You can follow this program at @MorningEdition. Renee is @nprmontagne. I'm @nprgreene. You can tweet, and you can listen, which you're doing right now. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.