Disgusting things can induce unethical behavior – How does this affect personal testimony in paranormal research?


According to a study conducted by marketing experts at Rice University, Pennsylvania State University and Arizona State University, feelings of disgust can have a powerful (and involuntary) impact on ethical behavior, increasing the likelihood that an individual may lie or cheat. Of course this involuntary response may have impacts in all facets our lives, but how does this affect the testimony of individuals purporting paranormal activity? Many paranormal investigators do take note of a claimant’s home environment, but traditionally it has been to either establish the quality of home life or the general habits of the homes occupants. Perhaps the level of cleanliness in a home, may present a need for greater caution in accepting a persons claim regarding fantastical activity, including that of team members who were witness to unkempt conditions.

Personally I have investigated several homes that were far past the border of filthy, the idea of those conditions affecting the testimony of my team never crossed my mind, but perhaps it is something to consider going forward. According to the research, inducing thoughts of cleanliness will mitigate the unethical impulses brought on by the disgusted feelings. Perhaps it’s best to conduct interviews about a homes activity in cleaner locations and for all team members to restrain from comments or claims until a more suitable location for deposition is available. Sound crazy? Well according to the research (which was just repeated this past month) the phenomena of unethical choices in response to disgusting encounters is a very real condition and we may benefit from the awareness.

“As an emotion, disgust is designed as a protection,” said Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “When people feel disgusted, they tend to remove themselves from a situation. The instinct is to protect oneself. People become focused on ‘self’ and they’re less likely to think about other people. Small cheating starts to occur: If I’m disgusted and more focused on myself and I need to lie a little bit to gain a small advantage, I’ll do that. That’s the underlying mechanism.”

In turn, the researchers found that cleansing behaviors actually mitigate the self-serving effects of disgust. “If you can create conditions where people’s disgust is mitigated, you should not see this (unethical) effect,” Mittal said. “One way to mitigate disgust is to make people think about something clean. If you can make people think of cleaning products — for example, Kleenex or Windex — the emotion of disgust is mitigated, so the likelihood of cheating also goes away. People don’t know it, but these small emotions are constantly affecting them.”

Vikas co-authored the paper with Karen Page Winterich, an associate professor of marketing at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, and Andrea Morales, a professor of marketing at Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business. It will be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The researchers conducted three randomized experiments evoking disgust through various means. The study involved 600 participants around the United States; both genders were equally represented. In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products such as antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched a disgusting toilet scene from the movie “Trainspotting.” Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. Mittal and colleagues found that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not.

In another set of experiments, after inducing the state of disgust on participants, the researchers then had them evaluate cleansing products, such as disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes. Those who evaluated the cleansing products did not engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion condition.

“At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted,” Mittal said. “If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other.”

Mittal said the deeper meaning of the study’s finding is that these powerful emotions can be triggered by various innocuous-sounding things when people are reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. “What we found is that unless you ask people, they often don’t know they’re feeling disgusted,” Mittal said. “Small things can trigger specific emotions, which can deeply affect people’s decision-making. The question is how to make people more self-aware and more thoughtful about the decision-making process.”

What are your thoughts?

Journal Reference:

  1. Karen Page Winterich, Vikas Mittal, Andrea C. Morales. Protect thyself: How affective self-protection increases self-interested, unethical behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2014; 125 (2): 151 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.07.004

Rice University. “Disgust leads people to lie and cheat; Cleanliness promotes ethical behavior.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 November 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141113123316.htm>.


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