Cue the “cleanliness is next to Godliness” music.
The researchers who were studying the impact of being exposed to dirt, filth and insalubrious environments did not talk about Godliness, but they did prove that feelings of disgust trigger bad behavior.
They also discovered that, when faced with something disgusting, you can mitigate the negative ethical effects by conjuring an image of Windex or Mr. Clean.
While feelings of disgust can increase behaviors like lying and cheating, cleanliness can help people return to ethical behavior, according to a recent study by marketing experts at Rice University, Pennsylvania State University and Arizona State University. The study highlights the powerful impact emotions have on individual decision-making.
“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.”
Disgust is adaptive. It tells people to withdraw in order to protect themselves against a threat… presumably to their health. Disgust makes people more selfish, but, under the circumstances selfishness is not a bad thing.
Cleanliness, on the other hand, makes you want to interact with other people, to seek out their company, to be considerate toward them.
Cleanliness tells you that it is safe to engage with other people. Disgust tells you to disengage.
Of course, people who take care to be clean and who live in a clean space are showing consideration already. Thus, when you engage with them you are reciprocating.
Filthiness is not just an effort to distance yourself, but a will, if need be, to act unethically. This suggests that when faced with someone who has not washed for a month you are going to be less likely to act ethically.
We also recognize that the principle can be misapplied. One can certainly see groups of people as unclean when they are not. Such is the nature of prejudice and bigotry.
One must add here that the role disgust plays in human society has been questioned by, among others, philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
In an interview Nussbaum politicized the issue by dividing emotions into those that serve a useful purpose and those that are used to discriminate.
Among the first group are anger and fear:
Some emotions are essential to law and to public principles of justice: anger at wrongdoing, fear for our safety, compassion for the pain of others, all these are good reasons to make laws that protect people in their rights. Of course individual instances of anger, fear, and compassion may be misplaced, but in the cases where they stand up to scrutiny, we should go ahead and make law in response to those emotions. John Stuart Mill observed that in this way all of a society's ideas about law and justice might be seen as built on anger and fear.
When it comes to disgust, Nussbaum sees things differently:
Disgust, I argue (drawing on recent psychological research), is different. Its cognitive content involves a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal. That desire, of course, is irrational in the sense that we know we will never succeed in fulfilling it; it is also irrational in another and even more pernicious sense. As psychological research shows, people tend to project disgust properties onto groups of people in their own society, who come to figure as surrogates for people's anxieties about their own animality. By branding members of these groups as disgusting, foul, smelly, slimy, the dominant group is able to distance itself even further from its own animality. Such irrational projections have been involved in antisemitism through the ages, and in misogyny in more or less every society. They are also involved in more localized forms of discrimination, such as the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, or American discrimination against homosexuals.
Unlike anger, disgust does not provide the disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for the purposes of public argument and public persuasion. If my child has been murdered and I am angry at that, I can persuade you that you should share those reasons; if you do, you will come to share my outrage. But if someone happens to feel that gay men are disgusting, that person cannot offer any reasoning that will persuade someone to share that emotion; there is nothing that would make the dialogue a real piece of persuasion.
She does recognize the possibility that disgust might be adaptive but dismissing it because it has often been misapplied:
I believe disgust had an evolutionary function, by giving emphasis and force to the sense of danger. Even if disgust doesn't perfectly track danger, it is close enough as a heuristic, when we have no time to perform the needed inquiry, or are unable to perform it. Even today, when we have many ways of finding out about danger, the sense of disgust is a useful heuristic. If the milk smells disgusting, it's a pretty good rule not to drink it. We can't all the time be testing our environment for bacteria, so staying away from what disgusts is good practice. But I think this shows nothing about the utility of the projective form of disgust, in which we deem certain groups of people disgusting and assimilate them to feces, corpses, and disgusting animals. That may be a ubiquitous human activity, but ubiquity doesn't prove value, especially not ethical and political value. The ubiquity of the male domination of women doesn't show that this domination is ethically or politically good.
But, if you believe, as Nussbaum seems to, that men have always oppressed women, how does her theory explain why men are attracted to women, when they seek them out and do not, in most cases shun them or run away from them.
And yet, all sex acts are not created equal. All do not bear the same risk to one’s health. Some people find promiscuous sexual activity disgusting, but doesn’t that reflect the fact that greater promiscuity entails a greater health risk?
Nussbaum seems to believe in the family of humanity, but most human beings divide people into friends, foes and strangers.
There is nothing irrational about seeking out people who resemble us more closely or with whom we have more in common.
Surely, this ability to draw distinctions can be abused or misapplied, but the same is true of any moral principle.
Ultimately, Nussbaum does not like disgust because she links it to shame, which punishes people by ostracizing them.
Disgust, by contrast, expresses a wish to separate oneself from a source of pollution; its social reflex is to run away. When I am disgusted by certain American politicians, I fantasize moving away to Finland—a country in which I have worked a little, and which I see as a pure blue and green place of unpolluted lakes, peaceful forests, and pristine social-democratic values. And I don't know it enough to know its faults. To fantasize about moving to Finland is not a constructive response to present American problems.
And yet, there are times when you ought to run away. You might not have the resources to clean the Augean stables. You might do well to avoid people whose hygiene is seriously deficient.
If you eliminate shame, as Nussbaum wants to do, you are left with guilt as the only acceptable social sanction. Is it really better to criminalize all of the behaviors you reject?
Is it really such a bad thing to encourage people—through extra-legal means—to practice good decorum, propriety and integrity? And if you discover that certain people are morally deficient, isn’t it a good idea to break off contacts with them?
After all, you are known by the company you keep.