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Master's Thesis, 2013
48 Pages, Grade: 7,5
Can a Moved Heart Make a Change? Effects of Moral Elevation on Disgust, Morality and Punishment
Disgust as Part of a Behavioral Immune System
Elevation as the Complementary Emotion of Disgust
Elevation and Pathogen Disgust, Morality and Punishment
The Present Studies
Strengths, Limitations and Directions for Future Research
Haidt (2003) conceptualizes moral elevation and moral disgust as contrasting emotions at the opposite ends of a “moral purity” dimension. The current paper investigates whether this concept holds true and elevation and disgust are counteracting emotions, e.g., if elevation has diametric effects compared to disgust. As disgust has shown a strengthening effect on morality (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005), the present research examines the influence of elevation on moral judgment and punishment, too. However, evidence in previous research for effects of elevation is contradictory. Thus, in Study 1, we tested in an initial, cross-sectional approach the association of empathy (theorized as “trait elevation”) and disgust sensitivity with pro-social behavior, respectively volunteer work. Empathy was a significant predictor for volunteer work experience. Domains of disgust showed diametric effects: More moral disgust and less pathogen disgust sensitivity were also significant predictors. Study 2 focused primarily on moral elevation as an affective, emotional state and was conducted as a lab-study. We tested three conditions (moral elevation, an amusement condition to control for positive affect, and a neutral condition) on pathogen disgust, moral judgment and punishment motivation. No significant differences between the conditions were observed. Explanations for the findings are discussed.
Key words: Moral elevation, Disgust Sensitivity, Morality, Judgment, Punishment, Volunteer Work
How does the reader feel while reading the following story? “The old and poor Grandpa Dobri is usually to find in front of the Bulgarian Nevsky Cathedral: Begging for money, he is well known by the people passing by every day. In 2010, during the filming of a documentary about the Cathedral, a journalist made an astonishing discovery. The most generous private donator was no other than Grandpa Dobri. He saved up EUR 40,000 from begging to support the church’s renovation, leaving only his little pension of EUR 100 per month for living (News in Pictures, 2013).” Haidt (2000) observed that solely watching another person behaving truly altruistically, respectively doing good to strangers without expecting a reward back, can cause a warm emotion that triggers the wish to become a supportive and “better” person. He coined the phenomenon described in this observation “(moral) elevation”. Moral elevation is supposed to encourage pro-social behavior (Freeman, Aquino, & McFerran, 2009; Schnall, Roper, & Fessler, 2010). Moreover, it is assumed to motivate a state of context-freed pro-sociality (Schnall, Roper, & Fessler, 2009). Further effects however, e.g. on cognition, have been rarely tested so far. Nonetheless, the study of elevation is assumed by the authors to be of relevance for all areas concerning pro-social behavior such as fund-raising, volunteering, cooperation, racism, politics or law.
A theorized (but not yet empirically examined) link between elevation and disgust has been suggested by Haidt (2003) . He observed elevation during his research on disgust and conceptualized the emotions at the opposite ends of one scale. Roughly summarized, the tendencies are either pro-social for elevation, showing supportive behavior towards others up to self-sacrifice (Schnall et al., 2010); or pro-self for disgust, focusing on self-maintenance through avoidance (Crandall and Moriarty, 1995). Compared with elevation, disgust has been widely studied (Tybur, Lieberman, Kurzban, & DeScioli, 2013) and is not only evoked by triggers of pathogenic origin but can also be elicited by social displeasures e.g., of moral or sexual nature (Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994; Tybur, Lieberman, & Griskevicius, 2009). Furthermore, a trigger for pathogen disgust (e.g., a bad smell) can elicit sensitivity in moral disgust and thus strengthen moral judgment (Schnall, Haidt, Clore, & Jordan, 2008; Wheatley & Haidt, 2005). Not only pathogen disgust but also the opposite, namely actual cleanliness demonstrated an effect on moral disgust. Unfortunately, the direction of the effect showed inconsistencies, though (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008; Zhong, Strejcek, & Sivanathan, 2010). Nonetheless, there is some evidence that pathogen disgust, moral disgust and cleanliness are interacting concepts with a certain degree of influence on cognitive processes and behavioral outcomes.
All in all, we can conceptualize moral purity including moral disgust and moral elevation on one side of a dimension, and actual cleanliness including pathogen disgust and physical cleanliness on the other side of the dimension. However, to our current knowledge the explicit role of elevation within this framework had not yet been studied; beside an increase in pro-sociality, very few effects of moral elevation have been demonstrated by existing research. The present investigation was designed to close this gap in research with a focus on the effects of moral elevation on disgust sensitivity, moral judgment and punishment. In the following, the paper will elaborate on functions of disgust. Subsequently, we will shed light on the current state of research on elevation. Eventually, the theoretical rationale for the present paper will be recapitulated.
The present line of research examines the extent to which elevation and disgust are associated, as disgust, just like elevation, has been shown to have certain effects on behavior. Disgust causes a physiological change, like nausea or even vomiting (Rozin & Fallon, 1987). Likewise, it triggers a certain type of action tendency, namely avoidance ( Navarrete & Fessler, 2006; Park, Faulkner, & Schaller, 2003). In addition, disgust has a pan-cultural facial expression (Russell et al., 1994) and even very young children are able to detect and to label an expression of disgust (Camras & Allison, 1985). Its unpleasant physical reaction elicits avoidance (e.g. no swallowing due to nausea) and thus protection from disease causing factors (Curtis, Aunger, & Rabie, 2004). Schaller and Park (2011) described disgust as a strong, automatic behavioral immune system that motivates avoidance behavior. For instance, the stigmatization of handicapped persons is an example of an unwanted side effect: The healed, but heavily scarred skin of a fire victim might still trigger disgust whereas there is logically no contagious harm to fear (Park et al., 2003).
However, not only pathogen cues can induce feelings of disgust. Tybur, Lieberman, and Griskevicius (2009) outlined three domains of disgust identified through their functions from an evolutionary perspective: pathogen disgust, sexual disgust and moral disgust. Pathogen disgust is hypothesized to protect physical health triggered by disease causing factors. Sexual disgust is associated with “biologically costly mates” to improve reproduction success (e.g., intrinsic qualities like physical unattractiveness, but also genetic compatibilities like avoiding incest might play a role). Women scored significantly higher on this measure - in line with the supposition that women have higher reproduction costs (Tybur, Bryan, Lieberman, Hooper, & Merriman, 2011). Moral disgust is triggered by violation of social norms such as theft, betrayal or murder in order to protect social rules and group functioning. Despite the actual differences between social and pathogen triggers outlined above, associated physical reactions are very much alike. A study compared the facial motor activity after being exposed to gustatory distaste (Chapman, Kim, Susskind, & Anderson, 2009). Pictures of pathogenic threats (both primes can be regarded as certain forms of pathogen disgust) and unfair treatments in an economic game (moral disgust) showed no difference in outcome; each trigger activated the levator labii muscle region of the face that is characteristic of an oral-nasal rejection response. A study on neural effects by Borg, Lieberman, and Kiehl (2008) provided further evidence for the three domains of disgust by Tybur et al. (2009). During an fMRI experiment, moral, sexual, and pathogen disgust primes activated overlapping, but separate brain networks showing the relatedness of all disgust types.
Different types of disgust do not only cause similar physiological experiences, they also seem to affect each other. Results by Jones and Fitness (2008) demonstrated that individuals who were more prone to pathogen disgust were also more prone to moral disgust. Furthermore, inducing pathogen disgust has been shown to increase moral disgust. A bad smell, a dirty environment, the recall of a pathogenically disgusting experience or a pathogen disgust inducing video caused strengthening of moral judgments (Eskine, Kacinik, & Prinz, 2011; Schnall et al., 2008) and more sensitivity towards the violation of moral purity (Horberg, Oveis, & Cohen, 2009). Bjorklund (2004) obtained similar results. Individuals who were more prone to disgust applied stricter moral judgment, especially when they scored low in self-reported use of systematic reasoning. In addition, Wheatley and Haidt (2005) demonstrated that even morally neutral primes can be rated as morally wrong when non-related, pathogen disgust has been subconsciously induced through hypnosis before (though see David and Olatunji, 2011, for a failure to replicate this effect). Pizarro, Inbar, and Helion (2011) claimed that negative affect could be the underlying driver for these effects. As subconscious prime techniques (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005) and control conditions with sadness (Schnall et al., 2009) or anger and fear (Horberg et al., 2009) have been used, we regard this criticism as unlikely. Overall, there seems to be a robust effect of physical disgust on moral judgment.
Elevation is an emotional state that Haidt claims is “forgotten” in our modern, Western culture (Haidt, 2000). Qualitative interviews in Japan, the USA, and India supported his idea of elevation as a cross-cultural emotion. Interviewees agreed that witnessing good deeds evokes positive affect (Haidt, 2003). Furthermore, Haidt examined historic resources and found more evidence in Christian, Muslim and Hindu culture. The most influential source for Haidt became a text by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the USA, where Jefferson argued that great literature cultivates a young person’s moral maturity by triggering moral emotions. Jefferson chose the words “elevating sentiments,” from which Haidt derived the term “(moral) elevation”. Elevation is supposed to be induced by witnessing acts of moral excellence while not being explicitly involved (Haidt, 2003), yet it is not comparable to mere positive affect. In a study by Algoe and Haidt (2009), self reported measures on experiencing elevation indicated a clear differentiation. Elevated participants were more likely to feel physical reactions such as a warm feeling in the chest or a lump in the throat than people that were amused or sensed admiration or gratitude. In addition, people in the elevation condition also reported a more positive attitude towards mankind. An fMRi study conducted by Englander, Haidt und Morris ( 2012) found some evidence for the experience of elevation on a neural level: Areas of the brain related with experiencing elevation are associated with areas processing mentalizing behavior, namely imaging the states of mind and intentions of others. Moreover, the involvement of the midline structures (including precuneus, posterior and anterior cingulated cortex) suggested self-referential processes like constructing a social narrative, integrating emotional experience and action planning. Again, comparable to the results in the self-reported study by Algoe and Haidt (2009), these areas were not active in the admiration condition. Ultimately, Haidt (2003) argued that elevation possesses the characteristics of a distinct emotion.
Moreover, several studies showed also a significant behavioral effect for elevation. One of the first studies was conducted by Silvers and Haidt (2008). They presented an either elevating or funny video to breastfeeding mothers. “Elevated” mothers produced more milk and nurtured the children more intensively than the mothers in the amusement or control condition. Similarly, Schnall, Roper, and Fessler (2009) could show an effect for “getting elevated” and the subsequent willingness to volunteer. Participants experiencing elevation volunteered nearly twice as long as the participants of the control condition. The task was to help an experimenter after finishing the official experiment. Furthermore, Freeman, Aquino and McFerran (2009) demonstrated that elevated individuals were more likely to donate to charity, even diminishing possible bias from racism. All in all, these results provide stable support that observing altruistic behavior elicits elevation, and in turn leads to a significant raise in altruism. Schnall et al. (2009) stressed that elevation is assumed to work context-independently: In the studies mentioned above, the elevation stimuli were not directly connected to the type of help needed, e.g. the study used a story of mentoring underprivileged adolescents as an elevation prime, and later asked for volunteering in an unpaid study. Support for this perspective is provided by a study by Vianello, Galliani and Haidt (2010). They observed a so called ripple-effect in working environments: Leaders’ interpersonal fairness and willingness for self-sacrifice seemed to “elevate” followers, resulting in organizational citizenship behavior and affective organizational commitment. Results suggested an effect above mutual cooperation and indicated an increase in total pro-social behavior. Overall, elevation seems to be an emotional reaction on observing morally good deeds beyond simple imitation or copy-behavior.
Still, there is some evidence that individuals can vary in the experience of elevation. The results by Aquino, McFerran, and Laven (2011) showed that when a person’s moral identity is highly part of his/her self-concept, experienced feelings of elevation are stronger and elevating events are recalled easier - this effect holds even true for manipulated moral identity centrality. In addition, Landis et al. (2009) found that self-reported frequency of experiencing elevation correlated with self-reported altruistic behavior. All in all, there is a chance that some individuals experience elevation more intense and/or at the same time seek to engage in elevating situations more frequently.
Despite the evidence for elevation as a basic emotion, it is questionable in how far Haidt’s idea of elevation as an opposite concept of disgust including diametric effects and contrastive behavior holds true. The behavioral outcome on social value orientation appears to be in line with Haidt’s argumentation. However, predictions for effects of elevation on pathogen disgust, moral disgust or punishment are difficult.
When it comes to pathogen disgust, two factors could play a role in elevation decreasing disgust: First, as elevation induces pro-sociality, we expect an increase in empathy (Declerck & Bogaert, 2008). In particular, an enhancement in perspective taking could cause higher identification with others and also lead to more perceived closeness (Vescio, Sechrist, & Paolucci, 2003). Research found that the closer people are (e.g., friendship, kinship), the less they are disgusted by each other (Case, Repacholi, & Stevenson, 2006). Strangers bring the risk of carrying pathogens the immune system is not prepared for, while people who are close might share the same germs and bacterial environment they are used to (Curtis et al., 2004). Thus, identification might increase perceived distance and decrease the awareness of pathogenic threat. Secondly, when moral elevation activates pro-social behavior, the corresponding mind-set of pro-sociality is supposed to be activated, too. Pro-sociality means to value the goals of the group over those of individuals (Frey & Meier, 2004). Turning argumentation around, one might assume that the individual is prioritized less, and so specific (pathogenic) threats to the individual (namely the self) would be of less importance.
There is also reason to assume that moral judgment (and thus moral disgust) becomes less harsh when persons are elevated. So far, the effect of moral elevation on moral judgment has not yet been directly investigated. However, some assumptions can be derived from research on physical cleanliness. Haidt theorizes a similar relationship between physical cleanliness and moral elevation as between pathogen and moral disgust (Haidt, 2003). Indeed, cleanliness seems to induce pro-sociality as well (Liljenquist, Zhong, & Galinsky, 2010). For example, Schnall, Benton, and Harvey (2008) followed the framework of Haidt and assumed that as pathogen disgust has a strengthening effect on moral judgment, cleanliness would cause the opposite by activating a mind-set of morality and compassion. They induced the concept of cleanliness in participants (by using a special scramble version with most words referring to cleanliness or purity) or let them physically clean themselves (by washing their hands) after watching a disgust inducing video. In both studies, moral judgments were later rated less severe by the cleanliness induced group than in the control group. Nonetheless, there is also some evidence suggesting that moral elevation could increase moral judgment. Zhong, Strejcek and Sivanathan (2010) found that the source of cleanliness matters. In contrast with previous findings, participants primed with being physically clean judged significantly harsher; this effect was moderated by the moral self image. Zhong et al. explained their findings with an improvement of one’s own moral standing which in turn affects judgment through a comparison process. Furthermore, there is a study testing effects of moral elevation not on general moral judgment, but explicitly on deontological violations, e.g., to purposely kill one person in order to save five others (Strohminger, Lewis, & Meyer, 2011). Results showed that elevation decreased permissiveness. The authors argue that elevation is strongly associated with empathy and moral reverence: The idea of killing somebody felt so wrong that even utility maximization for the group (five survivors instead of one) was of lower priority. In addition, a study by Posick, Rocque, & Rafter (2012) found that empathic individuals judge more strictly: Americans with higher levels of empathy reported that they feel justice in the US is not harsh enough. Thus, as elevated persons are supposed to experience an increase in empathy, one might suppose the moral judgment to strengthen.
All in all, the contradictory results on elevation and moral judgment make it difficult to predict possible effects on punishment motivation: One might assume that when moral judgment increases, punishment increases or respectively the other way around. However, moral judgment and punishment do not have to fully correlate (Cushman, 2008). For example it might be the case that elevation has different effects on an emotional versus a cognitive level; Elevated persons could feel less sensitivity towards pathogen disgust, could be less motivated to punish, but might still judge harder due to the contrast effects theorized by Zhong et al. (2010).
The present set of studies aims to test the null hypothesis for effects of moral elevation on experiencing pathogen disgust, moral judgment and punishment. To recapitulate, Haidt conceptualized a framework in which moral disgust and moral elevation present the opposite ends of one scale. Indeed, moral disgust and related concepts like physical cleanliness and pathogen disgust seem to cause mutual effects on one another. For example, pathogen disgust toughens moral judgment and punishment (Eskine et al., 2011; Schnall et al., 2008a). Effects for physical cleanliness are at hand but contradictory (Schnall et al., 2008b; Zhong et al., 2010). However, despite the various cues for certain effects of moral elevation, the direction for effects on pathogen disgust, moral judgment and punishment are hardly predictable due to inconsistencies or gaps in previous research. Therefore, the following studies intend to shed light on these complex relationships, and to establish effects of moral elevation beyond pro-social behavior.
In order to test the null hypothesis, one web-based (Study 1) and one lab-based experiment (Study 2) were conducted. The first study followed a rather generic approach: It was examined if personality traits like empathy and disgust sensitivity for pathogen, moral and sexual disgust are in a distinct way associated with pro-sociality, measured through experience in volunteer work. It was asked for previous practice in volunteering and personality traits were measured through self-reported scales. In the second study, moral elevation as an emotional state was focused and specific effects on pathogen disgust, moral judgment and punishment were examined. Three conditions were compared: People experiencing elevation, a neutral condition and also an amusement condition to control for mere positive affect. Participants were asked to rate disgusting pictures, to judge moral dilemmas according to their wrongness and how much punishment expressed in jail days these deeds deserve. Moreover, the self-reported personality traits from Study 1 were measured, too.
This study was planned as an initial, cross-sectional test of the relationship between elevation, trait disgust sensitivity and general pro-social behavior. Since there is no "trait level" measure of elevation, we used the conceptually related trait empathy. Both moral elevation and empathy increase pro-sociality (Freeman et al., 2009; Roberts & Strayer, 1996; Schnall et al., 2010). Furthermore, empathy improves perspective taking (M. Davis, 1983). Comparably, elevation induces the motivation to be a better person and to help others (Haidt, 2003; Silvers & Haidt, 2008). As a measure for general pro-social behavior, we considered experience in volunteer work. A commonly accepted definition of volunteer work is the unpaid commitment to a “cause”, often including helping others in need (Jain, Malhotra, & Guan, 2012). Working without financial reward can be regarded as pro-social as someone is spending time and effort to benefit a particular group. Nonetheless, volunteers indeed have a pro-social value orientation (Van Lange, Bekkers, Schuyt, & Vugt, 2007). In addition, previous research has demonstrated that volunteers are usually higher in empathy (Claxton-Oldfield & Banzen, 2010; Stolinski, Ryan, Hausmann, & Wernli, 2004). However, volunteer work is not always pleasant itself – it can include physically and mentally exhausting work and sometimes even stress personal disgust thresholds. This research also focuses on the latter. Disgust and especially pathogen disgust have a protective function; triggers avoidance and creates distance in order to protect the self (Curtis, Aunger, & Rabie, 2004). Why are people volunteering in pathogenic fields then? One assumption is that persons doing volunteer work posses different personality traits from non-volunteers (Claxton-Oldfield & Banzen, 2010; Stolinski et al., 2004). We presume that trait empathy reduces and counteracts avoidance behavior when experiencing disgust. Therefore, the present study was designed to investigate the question if certain personality traits are correlating and/or are associated with volunteer work. In particular, if the personality traits empathy and disgust sensitivity can predict the tendency of a person to volunteer.
Procedure and Sample
A total of 499 American participants were recruited via the online crowd-sourcing platform “Crowdflower”. They received $0.20 (U.S.) in exchange for filling out a 12 minute Qualtrics-based questionnaire. After agreeing to the consent form, participants answered various self-reported personality trait measures and were asked about previous volunteer experience in detail. A password for obtaining the money was provided only after completing the questionnaire.
Persons that did not finish the whole questionnaire or provided unreliable answers (e.g., filling out text entry fields with meaningless letters like “gfefwrgf”) were excluded (n=81). Out of the 418 remaining participants, 35.4% were male. The ethnic background was mixed: 75.1% were Caucasians, 9.6% African American, 7.9% Asians, 5.9% Hispanics and 1.7% other. In terms of financial means, 20% had a total household income of less than 17,000US$, 28.8% between 17,000-40,000US$, 25.5% between 40,000-65,000US$, 13.3% between 65,000-85,000US$ and 11.9% had a total household income of more than 85,000US$. Occupation-wise, 36.6% pursued a full-time job, 14.8% had a part-time job and 13.9% were students. The rest were unemployed (31.4%) or retired (2.9%). Education-wise, 1% did not finish school, 27% finished high-school, and 17.9% finished college. Furthermore, 21.5% had some years of university and 24.4% had a bachelor degree; 8.1% possessed a master degree.
 In the present paper, we will not distinguish between “moral elevation” and “elevation”, terms will be used exchangeable.
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