December 13, 2010


A SENSE OF CLEANLINESS: A Talk with Simone Schnall, Edge)

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 these random things that just happen in our lives, and that's how we decide, for example, what is moral, and what is immoral.

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.

The same monkeys that pick bugs and dirt off each other’s skin actually end up getting closer in the process of literally getting closer, and they become buddies, or good friends. So it seems like this behavior of keeping each other clean, or having a desire to be clean has consequences regarding building social relationships, getting close to others, or letting somebody get close to you. There might be something really important about being clean, feeling clean, having things being proper and tidy that goes beyond just the absence of contamination or disgust.

I've started my work on emotions and judgments when I collaborated with Jerry Clore and Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia. We got interested in moral judgment as an example of how emotions and feelings influence judgment and decision processes, and since then I've also done some work on positive moral emotions.

We test, for example, the effect of what we call "moral elevations", which is the sense of feeling uplifted and inspired when seeing somebody else do something really positive for another person. The typical film clip we use is from the Oprah Winfrey Show where somebody comes on the show who has been a mentor to some disadvantaged kids who grow up in some really bad parts of town, and are probably headed for a life in gang culture, but he mentors them, and becomes like a father figure.

We show participants this elevating clip, versus in other conditions we show them a neutral clip. Those who watch the Oprah clip report feeling really inspired, and uplifted, and elevated, and it gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling in the chest. But the important thing is not only this experience, but this feeling, in turn, leads them to help others as well.

So if I have witnessed somebody who did something really wonderful, I, myself also feel like I want to be a good person, and also want to help others. After watching the Oprah clip, we set up the study such that participants think there is still a second part to come in the study, but then it looks like the computer crashes, nothing works, and they're told, "You're free to go even though you were meant to stay for an hour, you can go now" after just 10 or 15 minutes. They're about to pack up their things, and then we say, "Oh, but you know what? You could really help me out by filling out these questionnaires, they are some math problems, and they're really tedious and boring, but I need some people to fill them out, and whatever you want to complete would be really helpful."

It turns out that people sit down again, and they start filling out these questionnaires, and what is really amazing is in the moral elevation condition, people would sit down on average for about 40 minutes and just sit and complete these boring questionnaires because they feel really motivated to help another person. The experimenter clearly needed help with the surveys, and they're really happy to help. That is compared to the control condition, where they also stay a little while, maybe 15 minutes or so, but in the elevation condition, people really went out of their way to help. We have found this now in various contexts, and it's a hopeful finding that these specific moral emotions can propel people to do good things for others.

For example, if we think of how charities try to get us to contribute, they give us good arguments and reasons of how many children are starving in Africa, and the statistics, and all of that, and they try to appeal to reason. But from our finding, it looks like a more powerful way might appeal to emotion, to get people not just to think of, " These poor people who are suffering", but get them to think of how wonderful they might feel themselves when they can help, and how they might inspire others to also become the benefactor of somebody in need.

Recently we also started looking at facial muscle activity in the context of morality, such as muscles involved in smiling or frowning. We used very sensitive electrodes to measure subtle muscle movement while people were considering certain moral transgressions, in other words, how much they smiled, frowned, and importantly, how much they pulled up their nose in disgust.

We find specific patterns of muscle activity, for example, people literally frown upon certain behaviors that harm others, and they wrinkle their nose in disgust for behaviors that violate a sense of purity or cleanliness. But the important thing is that these muscle movements are predictive of people's subsequent judgment: If I frown upon you kicking a dog, the more I frown, the more wrong I will consider this transgression later on.

So if you condition people to behave well they're more likely too? Shocking....

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2010 5:45 AM
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