A Talk withSimone Schnall[12.5.10]
As far as morality goes, disgust has received a lot of attention, and there has been a lot of work on it. The flip side of it is cleanliness, or being tidy, proper, clean, pure, which has been considered the absence of disgust, or contamination. But there is actually more to being clean, and having things in order. On some level even cleanliness, or the desire to feel clean and pure has a social origin in the sense that primates show social grooming: Monkeys tend to get really close to each other, they pick insects off each other's fur, and it's not just useful in terms of keeping themselves clean, but it has an important social function in terms of bonding them together.
SIMONE SCHNALL is a social psychologist the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at in Cambridge. Further Reading on Edge: THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY: An Edge Conference
Simone Schnall: I am a social psychologist, and study judgments and decisions from the perspective that emotions, and all kinds of feelings, including physical sensations, play a really important role. For example, such simple things as a sense of cleanliness can make a difference to how people decide whether something is right or wrong. We've been looking at, in general, how people make decisions, and how they arrive at judgments. In particular we've been studying moral judgments, that is, how do people tell right from wrong? It used to be thought for the longest time, going back for thousands of years of philosophical investigation, that people think of why a certain behavior might be wrong. They think of all the rational reasons, all the things they can come up with, they go through all the pros and cons, and then arrive at the judgment, and say, "Behavior X is either wrong, or very wrong, or not so wrong, it's fine", and so on. So it used to be thought that people think long and hard, and then figure out the answer. Now it turns out that actually this does not seem to be the case because first of all, people don't always think that much, and many thought processes are not really conscious, but rather, they happen outside of consciousness. Many thoughts just happen incidentally, and people aren't even aware of them. Therefore, instead of all these sophisticated thoughts and reasons, accidental factors enter the picture such as feelings and intuitions, for example, a sense of, "Well, I just have an intuition that this is the case", and such factors can be much more powerful than rational thought. For morality this idea first became popular in 2001 when Jonathan Haidt published his paper on the social intuitionist model, which has been a really influential idea. To give an example, if I ask you, "How wrong is it to falsify information on your CV in order to get a better job?" you might think that you just go through a rational process, and think of the reasons why this is wrong, or perhaps why it's not so bad. But we found that when you put people in certain emotional states, for example, if you have them sit at a table that happens to be very sticky, dirty, and disgusting, then people make different decisions. If you sit at a disgusting table, or let's say you're smelling a disgusting smell in the room, then you're more likely to say that falsifying your CV in order to get a better job is really wrong compared to somebody who sits at a clean table, or somebody who doesn't have a nasty smell around them. Similarly we find that when you give people a chance to feel very clean and pure, they decide that something like falsifying their CV is not so bad, it's proper behavior, or it's okay, it's clean. It seems like however people happen to be feeling at the moment colors their judgments about some even very fundamental decisions of whether it is right or wrong to do something. It's quite surprising that even though we like to think there are good reasons for our decisions, often times there are all...