Halloween is a time of year when we hanker for the horrific, ogle at the ugly, and revel in the rotten. And in this election year, we’re just as likely to overhear conversations about repugnant costumes (like gory zombies or bloody brides) as we are comments on disgusting (or “nasty”?) politicians. So in honor of all things that repulse us, I’d like to talk about new research from UNC social psychologists Dr. Kurt Gray and Chelsea Schein that sheds light on when and how disgust guides our moral compass.

Most people have a sense of right and wrong, and while we can all agree that murder is usually abominable, the specific variety of morality differs from person to person, culture to culture, and even one context to another. Immoral acts often feel disgusting: the doctor’s creation of a human centipede is as revolting as it is morally wrong. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s monster gives us the heebie-jeebies, but we wouldn’t necessarily consider him immoral. Why not?

This image might horrify or disgust you, but is it morally wrong?

Gray and Schein tested the notion that people find certain disgusting acts immoral because they perceive these acts to be inflicting harm. This framework for understanding morality, developed by Gray, is called Dyadic Morality: moral judgments are based on the perception of one person or entity intentionally causing harm to another. Thus, Freddy Krueger is unequivocally immoral when he attempts to kill teenagers in their dreams. But what about the girl in The Exorcist? When she spews pea soup and shoves a crucifix somewhere unmentionable, is she being immoral? While this act is extreme, it’s not just the gore that audiences find most morally repugnant, but the sacrilege; no doubt the scene would be much less memorable if a carrot had been the tool in question.

To find out what drives people to find certain “harmless violations” immoral, Gray and Schein measured people’s emotions after they read statements about religion. Some statements were anti-religious (e.g., “There is no God”), while others were pro-religious (e.g., “God is the creator of the universe”). The study participants also rated how harmful and immoral they believed the statement to be. Whenever these anti-religious statements evoked feelings of disgust, participants were much more likely to morally condemn the statement, but only to the extent that the statements were perceived as harmful. These findings remained even after taking into account participants’ religious affiliations. Thus, even for non-religious participants, entertaining sacrilegious ideas may have felt dangerous. The authors conducted similar studies using gay marriage (which some opponents consider immoral and disgusting) and more typical “disgusting” acts and found that, in all cases, harm was the critical ingredient in the relationship between disgust and moral condemnation.

So even though our costumes might cause a shriek or two, we can rest easy knowing that dipping our toes in the disgusting for one night probably won’t awaken the ire of our morally righteous neighbors; after all, it really is just some harmless fun.

Peer edited by Jonathan Susser.

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