Disgust Elicits Aggressive Reactions and Creates Bias — What Does this Mean for Peacebuilding?

Summary of:

Valtorta, R. R., & Volpato, C. (2018). “The body and soul emotion” – The role of disgust in intergroup relations. TPM: Testing, Psychometrics, Methodology in Applied Psychology, 25(2), 239-252. DOI: 10.4473/TPM25.2.5

Background & Theory

This article’s purpose is to evaluate how disgust as an emotion plays a role in one’s perceptions and judgments of ingroup vs. outgroup members. Specifically evaluated are how physical disgust vs. moral disgust elicit responses, how those differ depending on one’s identity, and how they can lead to dehumanizing others.

Research Questions

The authors in their article seek to answer the following questions:

  1. Do situations that elicit a disgust response contribute to aggressive behavior?
  2. Does disgust lead to harsher views of outgroup members and dehumanization?

Methods

The authors conducted their research with a sample of 204 people (roughly ⅔ female), ages 16-64 years old. The study focused on two areas: ingroup vs. outgroup membership, and disgust in three forms: physical, moral, and non-disgust. The study was online, and assigned all participants to one of two groups (they all were assigned the same group for the purpose of the study). They were then instructed to read a memory that another member of the study shared with them (which was a fictitious account of an interaction with a homeless person), and then to rate their feelings of disgust and their behavioral responses; the condition (there were six total) they were exposed to was randomized for all participants. The results were processed with the use of one-way between-subjects ANOVAs, and two MANOVAs.

Results

The results showed that when the target was an outgroup member, the behavioral responses of both passive and active harm were more significant. When physical disgust was evaluated, more passive harm intentions were indicated, and when moral disgust was evaluated, more active harm intentions were indicated. The results show a significant correlation between one’s group identity and the disgust responses one felt; one felt much more disgust, both morally and physically, toward an outgroup member than an ingroup member, and also started to form dehumanizing tendencies toward outgroup members. Interestingly, though, there were similar reactions to the ingroup member who was the perpetrator in the story, which the authors hypothesize may be a protective mechanism for us to continue holding our group in high esteem.

What This Means

  • Overall, this points to the bias we all hold in some way or another. We have a natural tendency to want to be right, and to think of our ingroup as being “better.” This can result in devastating consequences, as it can lead to the dehumanization of outgroup members, which can in turn elicit aggressive and violent behavior.
  • Disgust can be a way of protecting ourselves, but in doing so can lead to intentionally or unintentionally harming others, and does tend to elicit aggressive tendencies in some way or another.
  • Disgust can lead to unnecessary conflict and violence, and due to the identity factors and especially if aggressive behavior takes place, may make conflict harder to resolve.
  • The larger takeaway here is that we all must make conscious efforts to be kind. While identity is important to us, we must be careful not to place ourselves on a pedestal — we’re all human, and we all hold the same intrinsic value.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Disgust and bias are hard to address in conflict; in large part, both groups may have some validity to their feelings. However, we need to seek ways to overcome those initial responses and bridge the gaps, leading to peace instead of violence. Compassion training may be a reasonable approach to addressing this issue.

For everyone: There may be valid reasons to feel disgusted by something, especially when the action or situation you see is truly abhorrent. However, be careful what response this brings in yourself is it appropriate? Will it help resolve the issue at hand? Or will it further conflict, causing a revolving cycle of disgust and aggressive action by both parties? It may be reasonable to feel the way you do, but the better question that needs to be asked is how do we stop those disgusting actions from happening in the first place?