Saturday, December 6, 2008

What your "disgust" says about you

This entry was inspired by an article that appeared in the Economist about the association of personal hygiene with ethical behavior. The relationship seems to run counter to the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness.” It appears that physical purification disposes us to be more lenient towards unethical behavior. Experiments at Plymouth University exposed participants to a few minutes of Trainspotting (a movie known to evoke feelings of digust) and asked them to rate their disapproval for certain forms of deviant or delinquent activities. Those that washed their hands or who inadvertently read charged words evoking purity tended to disapprove less of the actions than those that didn’t.

At first, I intended to draw some silly public policy implications of this such as preventing mobsters, sex offenders and white collar criminals from bathing. In selecting jurors, the counsels for both sides should ask questions on personal hygiene. Smelly judges and cops should not be approached with bribes by offenders. These are just a few. There were more involving school masters, ministers, politicians and gangsters, but you get the picture.

Anyway, thanks to my self-imposed seven day rule for updating this blog, I had time to scan related literature before posting. I was able to uncover something more fundamental. It’s called “disgust sensitivity” and it affects apparently our ability to make moral judgments. Whether it is rooted in our DNA by evolution or culturally programmed is uncertain, but there appears to be seven disgust elicitors, i.e. food, animal, body product-related, sexual deviance, body-envelope violations, poor hygiene and contact with death. Our personal sensitivity to bodily sensations tends to make us more or less prone to experience feelings of disgust when we come across these.

So, my theory is that people who are squeamish may be more obsessive about personal hygiene. It may turn out that the mere act of ritual purification may have some residual effect on our ability to make moral judgments, and this is what researchers have picked up.

Think of all the psycho thrillers you’ve seen where the villain is a stickler for cleanliness. What also comes to mind are doctors who have to make moral decisions with regard to their patients' lives on a daily basis. Doctors obviously have strong continence for viewing bodily products and dealing with the dead. I used to watch a reality show called Fear Factor where contestants were made to eat bugs and other exotic animal parts in competing for a monetary reward. In combatting development problems caused by graft and corruption, I wonder if there is a possible way to screen public officials based on tests that measure one's disgust factor.