Disgusting decision-making with Yoel Inbar

PodcastDecember 13, 2021
stick man cartoon in a museum of disgust

That feeling of disgust, it’s very strong and it powerfully pushes you towards saying, “Ugh, morally wrong.” But ask yourself whether that conclusion is really justifiable. If you’re in a place where you can’t give yourself good reasons or you see a conflict between that judgment and some other principles that you have, you should question the usefulness of using that disgust reaction to inform your judgment.

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In this episode of the Decision Corner, Brooke speaks with Yoel Inbar – professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and expert in how the feeling of disgust influences human judgment and decision-making. Together they define what it really means to feel a sense of disgust and its evolutionary purpose as a means of preventing risk or harm (like stopping us from eating rotten food!). On the flip-side, we hear about the negative consequences of disgust and why it can lead to biased or flawed judgements.

Some of the things discussed include:

  • What is disgust and what purpose does it serve from a biological or evolutionary perspective?
  • Why justifying our disgust with moral reasoning, i.e. “It disgusts me so it must be wrong!” can be troublesome.
  • Descriptive versus normative beliefs, and how disgust affects both in different ways.
  • Does disgust affect people differently, and do some people get more ‘grossed out’ by things than others?
  • Strategies to acknowledge our disgust, and allow us to question whether it’s serving us effectively or not.

The conversation continues

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Key Quotes

When Disgust Is Useful

“So, the idea is that this emotion really evolved in order to keep us from coming into contact with things that would make us ill, that have pathogen risk associated with them.”

Why ‘Disgusting’ Doesn’t Automatically Mean ‘Wrong’

“You should be very careful about just pointing to a disgust reaction as a justification for the moral belief. It may be that you’re disgusted by a practice that you then for other reasons really do want to say is morally wrong. Right? But the disgust reaction in and of itself shouldn’t be considered a sufficient basis for saying that something is morally wrong.”

Nosy Preferences

“It’s not just a taste, like “Oh, I don’t want to eat horse steak.” It’s that we want other people not to do this stuff as well. Right? So, it’s not a preference. Economists have called these kinds of beliefs ‘nosy preferences’. We care about what other people are doing. What you’re doing in your bedroom is not just your business. It’s also my business if you’re doing something weird. I don’t want you doing it.”

Strategies for Managing Disgust

“What you might do there is ask yourself, “Well, are there other principles here that support or contradict my use of disgust to make this moral judgment?” It’s easier said than done because often people are really resistant to stepping back from that initial kind of snap moral judgment that they’ve made, even when their global principles would seem to conflict with it.”


Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Yoel Inbar, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about disgust, when it helps, when it hurts, and what to do about feeling grossed out. Yoel, thanks for joining us.

Yoel: Thanks for having me.

Brooke: The work that you’re doing looks at the role of disgust in shaping our beliefs about the world. What is the feeling of disgust? I mean, at an intuitive level, I think we all can relate to what ‘disgusting’ feels like, but for the sake of the conversation, it’s probably helpful for us to clarify exactly what we’re talking about here. So, how does it feel to be disgusted?

Yoel: Absolutely. So disgust is thought of by most emotion theorists as one of the basic emotions. So, these are emotions that are cross-culturally present and recognizable. Subjectively, it feels unpleasant, and in extreme cases, you might feel nauseated, really sick to your stomach. Sometimes when people are extremely disgusted, they even throw up. Your ‘action tendency’ is the way that emotion theorists often talk about it. What the emotion makes you do is get away, distance yourself from that disgusting thing.

And then another thing that people look at often is what kind of facial expressions characterize this emotion. So, in the case of disgust, people raise their upper lip. They throw their brow. Sometimes in extreme cases, they even stick out their tongue a little bit, a little bit of a gaping kind of face, and it also feels subjectively arousing to be disgusted. So, that just means you feel kind of physiologically activated. People, for example, sweat more when they’re shown disgusting stimuli in the lab. So, yeah, all things combined, it’s a negative reaction towards a specific elicitor, and you want to get away from that thing that’s making you feel disgusted.

Brooke: Okay, cool. Now, that we all have that good, strong feeling of disgust ready and primed…

Yoel: Yeah. You’re welcome. You’re welcome.

Brooke: Also, I appreciate that you mentioned that there are some facial expressions that go with it. If you’ve got a link that you can share to really good images of facial expressions, we can pop that into the transcript for people to enjoy.

Yoel: Absolutely. I’m happy to do that. 

Brooke: Super cool. So, let’s talk about the role of disgust now in our cognitive lives. That feeling is actually adaptive. In some circumstances, feeling disgusted is actually really useful for us as a biological entity. What are some of the areas where that feeling of disgust actually helps us to form useful beliefs?

Yoel: Yeah, I think of it as encouraging us to stay away from things that might make us sick. So, if you look at children, they’re not born with the full-blown disgust response. That’s something that they develop over time, and it’s noteworthy that they develop it at around age two to three, and then it comes fully online as kids get to, I don’t know, like age eight or ten. Age two or three, of course, is the age at which kids start moving around on their own, and the age at which they’re typically weaned so that they’re eating solid food. So, around that time, you start having to make decisions about “Should I put that in my mouth or not?”,right? And very young babies will happily grab a piece of poop and stuff it in their mouth. This is really not a podcast that people should listen to over a meal, I would say! Anyway, they’ll do that.

At around age two to three, they start showing some disgust reactions to what we call primary disgust elicitors, although it’s not quite as strong as you see in older children. So, the idea is that this emotion really evolved in order to keep us from coming into contact with things that would make us ill, that have pathogen risk associated with them.

Brooke: Right. And you noted earlier that disgust seems to be pretty cross-cultural. Are there some disgust elicitors that are also pretty robust and cross-cultural?

Yoel: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, when we talk about the basic disgust elicitors, those are often body products. So, feces, blood, mucus, and rotten foods, and then interestingly, most meats. Which specific meats are on the good list versus the bad list, that obviously varies across cultures, but in most cultures, there’s a small subset of animal flesh that’s okay to eat and then the rest is considered to be disgusting. So, for example, if you ask most Americans, “Would you like to eat a horse steak?” Most of them will feel sort of grossed out by that idea.

Brooke: Okay. Let’s pivot to the opposite end of the spectrum now. There are some circumstances where disgust still leads to belief formation, but it’s potentially not helpful. What are some of those situations?

Yoel: Yeah. So, the paradigmatic situation is something like people who have physical deformities or look unusual in some other way. So, somebody who has a prominent birthmark on their face, or even more so, somebody who’s a burn victim. Obviously, that’s not contagious, right?We know that, but people often feel an intuitive flash of disgust when they’re shown a picture of somebody who has that kind of unusual morphology, and the reason for that is this disgust reaction evolved obviously before we had germ theory, before we had any of that. So, it seems to be a pretty crude heuristic that reacts to, in part, people who look  unusual, and that’s triggered even if you know that unusual-looking characteristic is not anything that could make you ill or anything like that. Right?

It’s called the fire alarm principle because the thinking behind this is,it’s way worse to overlook a pathogen threat that could make you very ill or kill you, compared to wrongly avoiding an entity that doesn’t entail a pathogen threat but has some of those heuristic characteristics associated with them.So, if you’re like, “Oh, I’m not going to eat that,” and it actually is fine,you’re forgoing some nice food. If you’re like, “I’m going to eat that,” and it’s actually bad, then you may poison yourself and die. Right? So, the idea is this system ought to be hypersensitive. So, it goes off a lot when it’s not appropriate. That’s what those kind of reactions to people who look unusual are thought of as resulting from. Just this kind of overactivity principle.

And then more broadly, you can think about it as reactions to certain social practices or perhaps groups that might evoke a gut-level disgust response that we might not agree with if we were thinking about it carefully. One of the classic cases is unusual sexual practices. If you think about somebody who’s into some kind of weird sex stuff, but it’s not hurting anybody, it’s all consenting adults, maybe it’s solo. For a lot of us, it’s a little bit like, “Ugh, gross,” and then we kind of almost have to correct, explicitly say, “Oh, well, okay. But my principle is that consenting adults can have the kind of sex they want, and therefore, I’m not going to judge that as morally wrong.” But often our first instinct is to have this flash of repugnance which pushes us in the opposite direction of saying, “Oh no, I don’t like that.”

Brooke: Let’s come back to sex later.

Yoel: Great. Happy to.

Brooke: So, you mentioned this kind of fire alarm principle, and it reminded me of sticks and snakes, right? So, as you’re walking, taking a nice little nature walk, and you walk by a stick that you kind of glance out of your peripheral vision. Hopping away from five things that turn out to be sticks, but kind of look like snakes, is not all that harmful. But not jumping away when one of those things actually turns out to be a snake can be a life or death error. So, the same kind of thing applies here. When it comes especially to pathogen risks, you actually want a system that’s probably oversensitive. It’s probably going to give you some false positives and that’s okay, and so, that’s really helpful when we think about food.

Now, when we think about the more morphological stuff that you talked about, like deformities or burns, or these kinds of things. I gather that the evolutionary story there is more about genetic risk, that this person…well, maybe it’s more than just genetic risk, right? So, there’s potential infectiousness. That’s one story there, but then there’s also the genetic story of this person as a potential mate, and I never thought that I’d be saying this on this podcast, might not bring the kind of genetic purity that I’m after. God, those words sound so bad coming out of my own mouth.

Yoel: I look forward to seeing that taken out of context on Twitter or something, right?

Brooke: Yeah. When would something ever get taken out of context on Twitter, Yoel? Come on.

Yoel: Certainly never. Right. Sorry. Go on.

Brooke: Yeah. So, in this instance, we’re forming this kind of belief. It’s a causal belief, like “If I get close to this person or if I am this person’s mate, then that could have negative evolutionary outcomes for me. It might make me sick. My offspring might not thrive.”, this kind of thing, and those beliefs, I think, are what we would term ;epistemic beliefs’. They’re beliefs about what would or would not happen. And that’s why I now want to pivot back to the topic of sex which we were talking about before because it seems like the kind of belief that’s getting formed around atypical sexual practices is not so much an epistemic belief, it’s more a normative belief. It’s not coming to hold the idea that this thing is true, or it’s not true that this thing will happen or won’t happen. It’s about what is right or what is correct or what is acceptable, which seems to be a different kind of belief.

Yoel: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s definitely right that you can distinguish beliefs in that way. The only caveat I would put on that is that people might have these disgust reactions to a person who shows, say, cues of being contagious or a food that seems like it’s spoiled, without having any sort of epistemic beliefs or any sort of theory behind that. Right? So, the idea is that these reactions evolved in order to encourage the right kind of behaviors, and that doesn’t mean the organism needs to know anything about it. Right? So, rats will avoid other rats that show cues, olfactory cues, of being ill. The rats presumably don’t have an explicit belief that, “Hey, I should avoid this other rat because it’s going to get me sick.” They haven’t evolved a response to, “Oh, I smell these disease cues. I’m going to stay away.” Right? And I think in humans, it’s the same. It needn’t be that we have an explicit theory.

But you’re right to say that when we’re talking about stuff like sexual practices, it’s not just a taste, like “Oh, I don’t want to eat a horse steak.”. It’s that we want other people not to do this stuff as well. Right? So, it’s not a preference. Economists have called these kinds of beliefs ‘nosy preferences’. We care about what other people are doing.What you’re doing in your bedroom is not just your business. It’s also my business if you’re doing something weird. I don’t want you doing it.

Brooke: So, are we heading down a path towards relativism here? We’ve been talking about forming correct versus incorrect beliefs, and I think for descriptive beliefs, which are these kinds of epistemic claims about what is or is not the case, or will or won’t all happen. Hopefully, there is some kind of objective standard there that allows us to arbitrate between which kinds of beliefs turn out to be true and which don’t. When it comes to normative beliefs, it’s going to be much harder to find some kind of benchmark to check ourselves against. So, in this area of forming normative beliefs through these very physical reactions, are we just sliding now towards the relativism of my disgust versus your disgust? Is this just disgusting relativism?

Yoel: Yeah. So, I think that when you talk about moral beliefs, most people have the feeling that they ought to be justifiable in some way, that doesn’t point only to a person’s idiosyncratic reaction. And so, I think most people feel that “It grosses me out” is not a good reason to say that’s morally wrong. Right? We want to justify those moral beliefs with reference to some set of principles, and those principles, I mean, I’m not a moral philosopher, but you could point to a consequential principle of what brings about the best outcomes. You could point to deontic principles about people’s rights and obligations. There’s lots of ways to go there, but the key kind of commonality that I see there is that you can’t just say, “Well, I don’t like it, and therefore it’s bad.” It has to be justified by appealing to some more abstract, more general set of rules that aren’t just “I think it’s gross.” And so, I think most people would become morally uncomfortable saying, “Well, it should be banned because it disgusts me.”

Brooke: So, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and just push you a little bit. So, we think that what’s right and wrong should fit into a broader coherent picture, a narrative of how all the things that are right and all the things that are wrong kind of fit together. Can we push this one step further in the relativism claim and say, “Well, it’s not just my disgust versus yours. It’s the history of my disgust and how I make sense of it versus your history of disgust and how you make sense of it’?

Yoel: Can you say a little more about how you mean history there? I just want to make sure that I’m understanding the question right…

Brooke: Yeah. So, I’m consistently disgusted by these things. I have been disgusted by these things in the past. And when I’ve tried to make sense of my feelings of disgust in the past, I’ve found some kind of narrative that allows me to sow them together into a coherent picture, not because that coherent picture is necessarily right or wrong. It just kind of makes sense of the data of my moments of disgust. It doesn’t have to be entirely personal either. It’s like we, as a community, have this history of having felt disgusted by these things, and therefore we put together narratives that make a coherent picture out of them.

Yoel: Yeah, yeah. It sounds like you’re describing something that’s almost like motivated reasoning. You start with a disgust reaction, then you look for reasons that the thing is bad. I mean, I think absolutely,people a hundred percent do that. And that’s something that makes moral disagreement more complicated because people are going to be able to point to harms, and I would say you just can’t get around that when you have moral disagreements. Right? And the only thing you can do is try to come up with a general agreed upon set of principles that in theory could resolve those moral disagreements. Right? And that’s easier said than done, and it is certainly often unsuccessful, but I think that’s the only way that you can get from “Well, different people have really different intuitions, different, intuitive responses to behaviors” to “Well, as a society, we have to reconcile the different moral intuitions of lots of different people, so there has to be some general moral framework that we can agree on.” And then within that, we have to have lots of arguments about, “Well, you say that this behavior is harmful. Is it really?” And then you have to hopefully come up with some sort of consensus about whether behavior X is more or less harmful, and sometimes we get that right. Sometimes we get that wrong.

Brooke: There seems to be kind of a two-way street going on here because we’ve talked about some elicitors of disgust that are extremely robust across cultures and over time, but then some of them seem to be variable, and maybe what we can do to help make sense of that. We talked about motivated reasoning a moment ago, this idea that you have disgust and then you need to come up with some story that helps to explain why you’re having that reaction. But the stories themselves also seem to affect the types of things that make us feel disgusted. Namely, when you go into different communities and different societies, there are a whole bunch of things that are kind of idiosyncratic to that time and place and culture that will elicit a disgust reaction. Not everything will, but certainly, there’s a chunk of stuff that will.

Yoel: Yeah, that’s a hundred percent right. So, I think of this as we all have these kinds of basic emotional resonances that could be tied to specific groups or practices, or not. And that’s definitely something that’s contested. That can shift over time, in that bad actors very much play on it. So, if you look at, oh, I don’t know, we’re going to go from weird sex to Nazis now, if that’s cool.

Brooke: We were on genetic purity earlier. We’re only just circling back around.

Yoel: That’s right. You’ve foreshadowed this already. I mean, if you look at Nazi propaganda about the Jews, they really emphasize their viscerally disgusting qualities. So, they’ll talk about how they have an unpleasant odor, that they’re louse-infested, that their clothes are stained. Right? There’s some classic, I mean, I have these in slides that I sometimes use to illustrate the use of disgust in outgroup dehumanization. It’s very clear that those propagandists knew what they were doing. Right? You link this group to these physically disgusting attributes and you encourage people thereby to dislike and dehumanize them. And so, I think that there’s a ton of cross-cultural variability that either could be naturally kind of as an accident of cultural evolution or kind of deliberately because certain groups try to encourage a certain view of other groups or individuals. Such associations to disgust could really vary across those cultures.

Brooke: I’m going to pivot away from Nazis if you’ll allow me.

Yoel: That’s cool. Yes. Thank you.

Brooke: Some of the conversations that we’ve had previously are about the intensity of feeling disgust and that some people are much more prone to it. Some people feel the sensation of being disgusted much more acutely and intensely than other people in society. How does that affect the way that we form beliefs?

Yoel: Yeah. So, my collaborators and I, primarily David Pizarro at Cornell University, have been working with me on this stuff since the beginning. We’ve been looking at what’s called ‘disgust sensitivity’. So, usually, it’s a self-report measure asking people how readily they’re disgusted, and there’s validation work showing that that scale actually predicts people’s willingness to do actual disgusting things. So, what we find on that self-report measure is that people globally describe themselves as more politically conservative, but that seems to be motivated not by economic conservatism, like a belief in free market, stuff like that, but really primarily by what we call social conservatism or traditionalism. So, an endorsement of traditional cultural norms and values, particularly around sexual practices, seems to be the core there.

Brooke: Okay. I kind of lost the thread there. We’re going to have to trim here a bit. So, there are some examples that we’ve talked about where disgust provides us useful information, useful in that it’s biologically safe for us, useful in that it helps us to demonstrate an accordance with social norms. Right? It allows us to fit into our societies and these kinds of things. But there are also instances where the input that it provides is not all that useful in informing beliefs. What are the markers that we should be looking for to recognize which situation we’re in, in a given moment?

Yoel: Yeah. So, I would say my default presumption would be a social or a moral judgment. If you see yourself feeling disgusted or you sense that you’re feeling disgusted, question that first of all. I think there’s few cases in which disgust normatively should be considered morally relevant. And what you might do there is ask yourself, “Well, are there other principles here that support or contradict my use of disgust to make this moral judgment?” It’s easier said than done because often people are really resistant to stepping back from that initial kind of snap moral judgment that they’ve made, even when their global principles would seem to conflict with it.

There’s a classic study done by Jonathan Hyden and one of his colleagues where they give people a scenario, and we’re now going to go from Nazis to sibling incest, actually. So, they give people a scenario where these two siblings, Mark and Julie, they’re on a trip together. They’re alone. They decide it would be fun to try having sex just to see, and they do it once. They use two forms of birth control. It’s fine. They like it fine, but they decide not to do it again and keep it a secret. Right? People generally find that extremely gross and they say that it’s morally wrong. And then you ask people why, and they typically say something like, “Well, Julie could have gotten pregnant.” And then you point out, well, two forms of birth control. Well, people could find out. Oh, but they kept it a secret. Right? And even when you remove those explicit justifications that people give, they often end up in a place that’s like, “Well, I can’t really tell you why, but I still think it’s bad.” Right?

And what I would suggest is if you end up in that place, really question whether the fact that it’s bad, is the right answer. Right? So, that feeling of disgust, it’s very strong and it kind of powerfully pushes you towards saying, “Ugh, morally wrong,” but ask yourself whether that conclusion is really justifiable. Right? If you’re in a place where you can’t give yourself good reasons or you see a conflict between that judgment and some other principles that you have, yeah, you should really question the usefulness of using that disgust reaction to inform your judgment.

Brooke: Okay. Let’s go back to the distinctions that we were talking about before. There are two kinds of beliefs that we were talking about, descriptive versus normative beliefs. When you have a disgust reaction around something descriptive, the markers you should be looking for are is this thing actually going to make me sick, is this thing actually going to potentially infect me with a virus. Those are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves. Is that right?

Yoel: Yeah, yeah. I think so. I think so. And here again, there’s a lot of room for motivated reasoning. Right? So, once people think that something’s gross, they may start looking for reasons that it’s bad. So, I do some research on genetically engineered crops. That’s something where the scientific consensus is that they don’t pose any additional risk to human health above and beyond conventional agriculture. People really don’t like them. And what my collaborators and I have found is that some of that seems to have to do with the disgust response. Now, it seems like once people think that GMOs are gross, then they start looking for reasons that they’re also dangerous. Right? So, that’s always something to keep an eye out for.

But in general, I’d say, yeah, if you’re grossed out by eating rotten steak, yeah, good for you. And at the very least, if you’re like, “Well, I don’t want to eat that…” I don’t know, “that horse steak.” or whatever, you’re not going to do yourself any harm. I mean, you may be missing out on a delicious horse steak, but there’s no terrible consequences for you. Right? So, in a situation like that, I’d say roll with it. If you think it’s gross, don’t eat it.

Brooke: Right. So, that brings us back to an interesting point. It’s like the cost of acting versus enacting, or not acting, I should say. So, when we get into these more normative beliefs, then it’s kind of different. It’s not “is this belief likely to be true or not?”. “What kind of evidence can I marshal to try to figure out the fact of the matter.?” Here, it’s more about how this behavior fitS into these broader moral patterns of what seems to be right and seems to be wrong.

Yoel: Yeah, yeah. I would say for moral beliefs, you should be much more careful about justification and coherence. Right? And you should be very careful about just pointing to this disgust reaction as a justification for the moral belief. It may be that you’re disgusted by a practice that you then for other reasons really do want to say is morally wrong. Right? But the disgust reaction in and of itself shouldn’t be considered a sufficient basis for saying that something is morally wrong.

Brooke: Right. And something that seems to be common to both is regardless of where you come down on the matter intellectually, the feeling of physical disgust in response to rotten food or in response to some sexual practice that seems deviant to you, that physical response is not likely to go away. Is that right?

Yoel: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. So, there’s some research showing that if you look at, for example, liberal conservative differences in evaluations of same sex relationships, that some of what liberals seem to be doing is overriding an intuitive disgust flash in a way that conservatives aren’t. That  suggested that at least to some extent. Now, this study that I’m referencing is kind of old. It’s almost a decade  old now, and I think these attitudes do shift over time, but at least at the time these people, the liberals, were feeling a little bit grossed out, but then saying, “Oh, I’m going to ignore that.”

Brooke: Right. And ignoring doesn’t mean it goes away. So, I think often the parallel that I use when I’m talking about cognitive biases, for instance, is like when you learn that the Muller-Lyer illusion is an illusion, that these two lines with arrowheads on them, one pointing out and one pointing in, when you learn that those lines are the same length, they don’t stop looking like different lengths. You just start to question the inputs from your eyes a little bit more. You don’t stop seeing them as uneven lengths. You start to see them as something I should hold a ruler up to in order to figure it out.

Yoel: Yeah, I think that’s a great analogy and I hadn’t thought of it in precisely that way. So, I would say in financial decision-making, this comes up all the time. Right? So, the shape of the prospect theory value function, loss aversion basically makes people unreasonably risk-averse. Right? It hurts more to lose $20 than it feels good to win $20. But overall, if you have a portfolio of a hundred positive expected value bats, you should take it. Right? You can learn that principle, but still feel that pull of loss aversion for each individual decision, but then be like, “Okay, no, I have this principle, right, and I know the ‘right way’ to make this decision. So, I’m going to do that, even though inside of me, there’s a little dude jumping up and now I’m being like, “No, no, no, too risky.'” Right? That overriding thought  has to happen every time and the feeling doesn’t go away.

Brooke: Yeah. So, that’s helpful to align expectations, I think for how it is that we’re going to deal with this, getting to the place where you don’t expect that the feeling’s going to go away. And I think going along with that, you don’t beat yourself up for still having this gut reaction feeling, but along with that, you also have the reflex to question yourself and ask how it is you feel you ought to respond, even if your body is telling you, “Uh.”

Yoel: Yeah, yeah, exactly right. Exactly right.

Brooke: Okay. In the world of investments, you mentioned not making decisions one by one, but making decisions by portfolio. Are there ways that we can reframe some of the decisions that we make or some of the beliefs that we hold around the disgust reaction that allow us to kind of put it in check? One thing that comes to mind is while you’re thinking about whether this food that smells very strong might make you sick, maybe don’t sit down right in front of the food while you’re thinking about it.

Yoel: Right, right. It’s just like a refocusing kind of idea.

Brooke: Yeah.

Yoel: Yeah. There’s a little bit of evidence on this, actually. So, this paper that I already mentioned, this 2013 paper, this is from Matt Feinberg, a colleague of mine, and collaborators. So, they talk about reappraising disgust and differences between liberals and conservatives and disgust reappraisal, and the downstream effects that has on their attitudes. So, reappraisal, this is a term of art from the emotion literature, and the idea is when you feel an emotion, one thing you might do is to suppress it, to just say, “No, I don’t want to feel it,” or you might reappraise it. So, you might try and think of the situation differently to try and feel the emotion less.

And one thing that they do in this paper is they have an experiment where liberals and conservatives watch a scene from Brokeback Mountain where it’s two dudes making out, and they’re instructed either to just watch that clip or to “Try to think about what you’re seeing in such a way that you don’t feel any at all.” So, I think of this as encouraging people to kind of ignore their affective response. It turns out that when you give people that instruction, liberals and conservatives look in terms of their attitudes towards gay people about the same after watching that clip. Whereas, when you don’t give them that instructions, conservatives, after watching that clip, are more negative towards gay people than liberals are.

Now, this study, I should say, this is like 10 years old. The sample size is a little low, but I think it’s at least suggestive that, by trying to ignore this emotional response, and you can think of different strategic ways to do that or perhaps reframe the emotional response,we can then change our downstream judgment. So, I would say if you feel with some kind of moral or policy question that your disgust response is being amped up, you might think, “Well, how can I put that aside? How can I recognize that I’m feeling it, but not let it affect my judgements, or how can I maybe reframe this issue to push those disgust buttons less?”

Brooke: All right. Just before I was going to do a big summary, is there anything else that you wanted to get out there before summary time?

Yoel: Nope. This has been good.

Brooke: Okay, great. So, this is great. We’ve covered a lot of territory here and I just kind of wanted to sum up what we’ve covered. The first is this feeling of disgust, that kind of gut reaction that sometimes comes along with this retching feeling, as you mentioned, can even elicit vomiting, it can be really helpful. It can be helpful in getting us to avoid things that will potentially make us sick, avoiding pathogens, avoiding infection, this kind of thing. But also sometimes it misfires. It’s calibrated to misfire, to be a little bit oversensitive to keep us safe, but this misfiring, and especially in a social setting, can lead us to form beliefs that are maladaptive. It kind of overreaches and extends into areas where those beliefs don’t help us to form and integrate into a very cohesive society.

So, some of the things that we can pay attention to there are when we have this feeling of disgust, first of all, asking ourselves, “Is this feeling of disgust kind of motivating more of a descriptive or a normative belief?” Descriptive being, “I think that something is going to happen,”versus normative, “I think that something is right or wrong.” It’s especially that second category belief, or disgust rather, informing normative beliefs where we need to be particularly careful.

Under those circumstances, some of the things that we can do are; walk away from the thing that is eliciting our disgust, to just attenuate that reaction and give ourselves a bit of a clearer head space to think through how it is that we feel we want to be reacting to this situation, or how we feel it’s appropriate to react to that situation so we can explicitly and kind of intellectually override that more automatic response that we’re getting, not that that automatic response is going to go away, even if intellectually, you feel that such and such a practice is appropriate. Your gut might still feel otherwise. That internal conflict is just something that we’re going to have to live with.

Yoel: Yeah. I think that’s an excellent summary. Thanks, Brooke.

Brooke: Okay. Thank you. And yeah, is there somewhere that we can keep up to date with all of this disgusting research that you’re doing?

Yoel: Absolutely. You can check out my website, yoelinbar.net. And I’m also on Twitter at yorl, Y-O-R-L, and I tweet out the labs and papers as they come out there. So you can follow me there to stay updated.

Brooke: Thanks very much. Appreciate you taking the time today and hope to talk again soon.

Yoel: Thanks very much for having me. It’s been a blast.

Brooke: Cheers.

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About the Guest

Yoel Inbar

Yoel Inbar

Yoel Inbar is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and co-host of the podcast ‘Two Psychologists Four Beers’. He studies how intuitions and emotions—particularly disgust—affect our social, political, and moral beliefs. His work has evolved from studying how differences in the experience of disgust relate to social and political attitudes, to the varied ways in which moral intuitions guide beliefs and judgments, especially in social and political domains. Most recently, he has become interested in understanding the acceptance or rejection of new technologies, such as genetic engineering. Yoel holds a BA from the University of California at Berkeley as well as a PhD in Social and Personality Psychology from Cornell University.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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