Psychologists shed light on origins of morality

February 26, 2009

In everyday language, people sometimes say that immoral behaviours "leave a bad taste in your mouth". But this may be more than a metaphor according to new scientific evidence from the University of Toronto that shows a link between moral disgust and more primitive forms of disgust related to poison and disease.

"Morality is often pointed to as the pinnacle of human evolution and development," says lead author Hanah Chapman, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology. "However, disgust is an ancient and rather primitive emotion which played a key evolutionary role in survival. Our research shows the involvement of disgust in morality, suggesting that moral judgment may depend as much on simple emotional processes as on complex thought." The research is being published in Science on February 27, 2009.

In the study, the scientists examined facial movements when participants tasted unpleasant liquids and looked at photographs of disgusting objects such as dirty toilets or injuries. They compared these to their facial movements when they were subjected to unfair treatment in a laboratory game. The U of T team found that people make similar facial movements in response to both primitive forms of disgust and moral disgust.

The research employed electromyography, a technique that uses small electrodes placed on the face to detect electrical activation that occurs when the facial muscles contract. In particular, they focused on movement of the levator labii muscle, which acts to raise the upper lip and wrinkle the nose, movements that are thought to be characteristic of the facial expression of disgust.

"We found that people show activation of this muscle region in all three situations - when tasting something bad, looking at something disgusting and experiencing unfairness," says Chapman.

"These results shed new light on the origins of morality, suggesting that not only do complex thoughts guide our moral compass, but also more primitive instincts related to avoiding potential toxins," says Adam Anderson, principal investigator on the project and the Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience. "Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn's innate preference for what tastes good and bad, what is potentially nutritious versus poisonous."

Source: University of Toronto

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8 comments

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thales
3.8 / 5 (4) Feb 26, 2009
It makes sense. I imagine this is the crux of moral dilemmas - instinct versus reason.
E_L_Earnhardt
3.3 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2009
Phychology discovers morality. Now that's news!
nilbud
3.3 / 5 (4) Feb 26, 2009
Just because you pull a face doesn't mean the underlying causes are related. There are a few things which would raise my eyebrows but that doesn't mean they are related, unless being stabbed is the same as being goosed. Munching a steak would cause disgust to a vegetarian and that is a learned response. As an atheist I'd suggest consulting some theologians and philosophers regarding the design of the experiments, morality is tricky.
definitude
2.4 / 5 (5) Feb 27, 2009
I am an atheist and a theologian, I have no problem with these findings. Frankly, I was just dealing with some individuals about moral civic duty. It is ironic because the conversation degenerated into arguments of disgust. It was ironic that debate over logic and social kinship might be hinged on matters of bias and social referencing of discomfort in Hygiene or survival, but that does seem to have an effect. Not only that, it seems to be the crutch of those who are disheartened by logical premise. I know it is not fair, but I can see how appearance can make or break a deal. Question is, do you really want to foster a deal with someone willing to reduce logic to an instinctual bias.
nilbud
3 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2009
"It was ironic that debate over logic and social kinship might be hinged on matters of bias and social referencing of discomfort in Hygiene or survival"

Was that supposed to mean something or do you just specialise in nonsense?
menkaur
3.5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2009
Just because you pull a face doesn't mean the underlying causes are related. There are a few things which would raise my eyebrows but that doesn't mean they are related, unless being stabbed is the same as being goosed. Munching a steak would cause disgust to a vegetarian and that is a learned response. As an atheist I'd suggest consulting some theologians and philosophers regarding the design of the experiments, morality is tricky.

actually, it makes sense. our mind usually uses what it already has - if it is possible - instead of creating new circles for some unknown purposes. it makes evolutionary sense. i don't see, what's your problem
smiffy
not rated yet Feb 27, 2009
the scientists examined facial movements when participants tasted unpleasant liquids and looked at photographs of disgusting objects such as dirty toilets or injuries. They compared these to their facial movements when they were subjected to unfair treatment in a laboratory game.
This can hardly be a surprise. Something unpleasant is happening to the subject in both cases, eliciting similar emotional responses. If moral response is to be truly tested the subject should have been examined *witnessing* extremely unfair treatment of somebody else, which should provoke strong moral objections. I'd like to bet in that case the facial expressions would be quite different.
jonnyboy
1 / 5 (3) Feb 28, 2009
DUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

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