Do you find Rush Limbaugh more palatable after vs. before taking a bath? Might you be more inclined to linger on the Bill O’Reilly Show while channel flipping in a recently-mopped and cleaned room compared to a dirty and disheveled one?
Perhaps you just might. At least, that’s what recent research from Cornell’s Erik Helzer and David Pizarro suggests. Their just published study showed that reminding people of physical cleanliness made them report being more politically conservative and also led them to make harsher moral judgments when considering mildly perverted sex acts.
The study builds upon work showing links between moral judgment and the subjective experiences of bodily purity and visceral disgust. Recent studies have shown that individuals who experienced disgust in response to foul odors or by sitting at a dirty desk, judged the moral transgressions of others far more harshly compared to controls. The general idea behind these and other studies is that moral judgments are in part based on emotional responses which originally evolved for other purposes. For example, visceral disgust — say, the kind one might experience when smelling rotten meat — likely evolved as a means of detecting and avoiding harmful pathogens. The argument, as it goes, suggests that self-reported moral disgust responses to, for example, a visible display of homosexual affection (two men kissing) could be subserved by the same system from which “visceral disgust” responses emerge. The current study builds on this work with a crafty two-part experiment.
In the first study, participants were approached in the hallway of a campus building and asked to complete a questionnaire, which asked three questions about political orientation. Participants were instructed to stand either near a hand sanitizing station (the experimental condition) or step over to a wall where there was no hand sanitizer nearby (the control condition) to complete the questionnaire. Those who stood near the hand sanitizing station rated themselves as being more conservative than the control group.
In the second study a wall sign commanding researchers to “use hand wipes” before typing at a computer served as a reminder of cleanliness. Additionally, while the moral judgement task was introduced, participants were asked to use a hand wipe before starting. In the control condition, there was no sign and subjects weren’t asked to wipe their hands. First, participants filled out the political orientation questionnaire from experiment 1. As in the first study, participants in the cleanliness condition rated themselves as more conservative. Then participants engaged in the moral judgment task in which they were asked to rate their moral approval of sex-related items, such as:
“A woman enjoys masturbating while cuddling with her favorite teddy bear”
“After a late-term miscarriage, a woman asks her doctors to take a picture of her cradling the miscarried fetus.” (phew!)
Participants who received the cleanliness reminder issued harsher moral judgments of sexual acts than the control group. As a within-group control, both groups were also asked to rate their level of approval of non-sexual but purity related items such as “As a practical joke, a man unwraps his office mate’s lunch and places it in a sterilized bed pan” and non-sexual, non-purity related items that described people lying on their taxes, or forging a reference letter. For these latter two groups of items, there was no difference between control and experimental groups. Only the sexual items were rated more harshly by those in the “cleanliness” condition. In sum, reminders to maintain cleanliness led to increased conservativeness and harsher moral judgments for sexual violations of purity but not for non-sexual and/or non-purity related violations.
The paper adds to the growing body of work supporting the idea that moral condemnation may have evolved by piggybacking onto evolutionarily older systems originally dedicated mainly to survival via “literal” pathogen avoidance and concern with personal cleanliness and only later being adapted for a more uniquely human purpose. One big question that emerges from this work is: what comes first? The cognitive disposition or the ideology? The author’s suggest that the evidence supports a bidirectional explanation. Beyond that it’s mostly speculation.
Also unclear is the question of the relationship between moral condemnation and moral behavior. Does one predict the other? Conservatives often describe themselves as adhering to higher moral standards when it comes to sex than liberals. And they tend not to be supportive of “alternative” lifestyles, especially romantic relationships between homosexuals. Conversely, most liberals take pride in their embrace of a wider range of lifestyle choices and more progressive sexual attitudes. But, this is not to suggest that either conservatives’ or liberals’ attitudes necessarily maps directly on to their behavior. People sometimes say the wrong thing and do the right thing. Or, conversely, say the right thing and do the wrong thing.
Helzer EG, & Pizarro DA (2011). Dirty Liberals!: Reminders of Physical Cleanliness Influence Moral and Political Attitudes. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21421934
Watching violent films or playing violent video games decreases helping behavior towards people in need of assistance, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan.
In one experiment, participants are playing a violent or non-violent video game when a loud and apparently physical fight breaks out in the hallway just outside their room, resulting in one person being injured. In a second experiment, participants are exiting a movie theater after watching either a violent R-rated film or a non-violent PG-rated film when they encounter an injured woman who has dropped her crutches and is struggling to pick them up. In both experiments, researchers timed how long it took for the participant to help the person in need and, in both cases, those who were exposed to violent media took longer to help than those exposed to non-violent media.
Researchers attribute the delay in helping to desensitization, suggesting that exposure to violent media causes people to become numb to the pain and suffering of others, leading to less helpful behavior. Of the two experiments, the video game experiment seems fairly sound, but there are some problems with experiment two, the movie experiment.
For one, the sample population is non-random. In order to address this issue, researchers had some people encounter the woman before they went in the theatre. In this case, there was no difference in reaction time between the two groups in terms of their helping behavior. This certainly points to the possibility that the behavioral difference was a result of the violent movie, but I would suggest that this doesn’t, however, completely rule out that there was something systematically different about the population attending the violent film. Maybe the decrease in helping behavior for people choosing to attend the violent film is context-dependent, only surfacing after exposure to a prime (the violent film), whereas this behavioral change wouldn’t surface in people who choose more benign, and less violent, movie fare.
I would also posit that its not impossible that some element other than violence in the violent film might have primed people to be less helpful, or that some element in the non-violent film primed people to be more helpful. For the record, the violent and non-violent movies which served as independent variables were “The Ruins” and “Nim’s Island,” respectively. I’ve seen neither film so can’t posit a guess as to which moderating variables could be responsible, but given the fact that we’re talking about two feature-length Hollywood movies and not films carefully constructed so that the only difference between them is the level of violence, its not hard to imagine that such variables might be present.
Experiment 1, as I mentioned earlier, is on more solid ground. It seems unlikely that helping behavior was primed by the video games in the non-violent condition, which included titles like Tetris and 3D Pinball, although its remotely possible that the decrease in helping behavior in the violence condition was moderated by some variable other than violence. An additional strength of Experiment 1 is that participants were randomly assigned to either condition,
Although published as a package deal, I see these two experiments as addressing slightly different questions. In experiment one, participants are playing instrumental roles and actually initiating much of the violent behavior to which they’re exposed. Those watching a movie, on the other hand, are passively involved in the experience, which would seem to require far less active attention and, not incidentally, no active role or involvement in the violence portrayed.
Pre-testing nonwithstanding, both the non-randomness of the population attending the violent film, and the possibilty of some systematic difference in this population, and also the possibility that some other variable primed the decrease in helping behavior, or an increase in helping behavior in the non-violent condition, suggests some problems with the claim that passive exposure to violent media leads to a decrease in helping behavior. The researchers suggest that either active participation in or passive exposure to violent media lead to a decrease in helping behavior but I would suggest that, for the reasons mentioned above, a strong claim can only be made for the former and not the latter.