Disgust and Moral Judgments Research Paper

Morality Disgust

Disgust and Moral Judgments

This research study examined levels of morality and disgust in a series of paired photographs. Pairs of individuals with different moral cues were presented to subjects via computerized surveys and rated for perceived morality; the five highest and lowest rated pictures were then paired with control pictures and second population of respondents were asked to assess whom they would prefer sharing a toothbrush with. The results indicate that perceptions of morality have a strong correlation with perceptions of physical cleanliness and reactions of physical disgust. Implications in light of contemporary research are examined.

Human judgments of each other are known to be highly subjective, nearly instantaneous, and largely involuntary. A variety of factors, including previous experience in combination with certain chemical and nervous reactions to the sight or presence of another person, lead to various perceptions or conclusions being drawn often without the individual being fully conscious or aware of the judgments he or she is making. Cultural influences also have a large impact on these judgments, with certain styles of dress, occupational cues, and other visual elements of a person’s appearance affecting the manner in which they are first judged perhaps more than anything else. Understanding exactly what information goes into these judgments has formed a somewhat controversial yet highly fascinating area of research, with a number of studies providing further clues into the complexities of human interaction.

This research set out to measure the levels of moral judgments and, to some degree, the manner in which these judgments are made, based on images of certain individuals. Specifically, the link between levels of physical disgust and morality in reactions to a series of paired photographs were assessed, and the results examined to determine which of the specifically identified factors examined contributed to these judgments. Coming to new understandings regarding the way human judgment works and how individuals are perceived and interacted with by others can lead to directly practical recommendations for individuals dealing with a variety of personal and professional situations, and also creates more detailed and solid academic knowledge related to the psychology of perception and judgment.


The methodology of this study employed fairly straightforward survey techniques in order to achieve its results. Two different populations were utilized in the study; both were predominantly female (75.23% and 68.47%, respectively) yet contained significant male populations. Gender was not studied as a correlative factor in this study, but the population mix was still desired in order to achieve greater validity and generalizability of the results. Both populations were instructed to complete the computerized survey in private, and anonymity of responses and results was guaranteed throughout the study and was ensured through the privacy and computerization of the surveys themselves. A total of 220 subjects participated in the study, in one study population of 109 and one population of 111.

The first population of 109 individuals (27 males and 82 females) completed moral judgments of individuals presented in paired pictures. Each pair consisted of either two males or two females, one of which was identified as the target picture with culturally identifiable markings of certain professions thought to have an impact on perceptions of morality — doctors, politicians, nuns, car salesman, etc. Moral ratings of each picture in the pair were given on a seven point Likert scale, and the five highest and five lowest rated photos were retained and paired with control photos for the second phase of the study. The second population of 111 subjects (35 males and 76 females) in this second phase were asked which person in each paid of pictures they would prefer to share a toothbrush with, with a simple recording of preference making up the raw data. These two data sets were then compared and analyzed using basic statistical techniques (t-tests) to determine the level of correlation, if any, that existed between the results of the two independent populations.


The mean moral rating for the top five rated pictures was 5.7780 with a standard deviation of .83237, and for those lowest rated was 3.9101, standard deviation .92796. With a t-score of 18.15, there is a highly significant difference in these means and thus a valid measure of moral perception was conducted in this study. Mean toothbrush preference for high moral pictures was .6811, standard deviation .20955, and for low moral pictures mean was .2180, standard deviation .19362. The t-score of 17.57 means these results were also quite significant.


The initial results of this research indicate both that perceived morality can be highly influenced by certain cultural cues, and that physical disgust can also be fairly accurately predicted by perceptions of morality. This is interesting in light of research by Curtis et al. (2004) and others that suggests the disgust response has evolved specifically as a means of protection against disease. The near-instantaneous moral judgments that humans make of one another might be part of a related response, given the correlation demonstrated in this study between perceptions of morality and disgust. This hypothesis is also supported by research completed that suggests sexual disgust could have evolutionary benefits at least during menstruation, and thus that certain social and biological factors can alter psychological perceptions and processes in order to encourage or discourage certain behaviors, which perceptions of morality could also potentially be included in (Fessler & Navarette 2003).

Previous research has also demonstrated a strong cross-cultural trend in equating physical cleanliness with high moral standings, with washing and cleansing rituals used to provide moral purification in addition to — and sometimes without regard to — physical hygiene (Zhong & Liljenquist 2006). Similar psychological effects of cleansing have also been noted in empirical studies (Lee & Schwartz 2011). This research supports the existence of a converse relationship, as well, where perceptions of moral rectitude result in judgments of higher physical cleanliness and hygiene.


Moral Ratings

N = 109

Mean difference = 1.86789

Std. deviation difference = 1.0747

t = 1.86789/(1.0747/(109) = 18.1458492

Toothbrush Preference Ratings

N = 111

Mean difference = .46306

Std. deviation difference = .27763

t = 0.46306/(0.27763/(111) = 17.5724519


Curtis, V., Aunger, R. & Rable, T. (2004). Evidence that disgust evolved to protect from risk of disease. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biology.

Fessler, D. & Navarette, C. (2003). Domain specific variation in disgust sensitivity across the menstrual cycle: evidence in favour of an evolutionary account of sexual disgust. Human Behavioral Evolution 24: 406-17.

Lee, S. & Schwartz, N. (2011). Wiping the Slate Clean Psychological Consequences of Physical Cleansing. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20(5): 307-11.

Zhong, C. & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing. Science 313(5792): 1451-2.

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