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Eww! That is just disgusting! (but…very interesting)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

We’ve written about secret weapons for the trial lawyer before. Like the chairs in the jury box and wearing red which turned out not to be for just the women among us! And now, where should more secret weapons come from but the research on moral judgments and especially, the research on disgust.

The Boston Globe just published a piece on how our moral judgments may come not from our religious/spiritual beliefs or from our deeply ingrained values but instead from our visceral reactions to what we see and hear.

Here are some examples:

  • If you are more easily disgusted by bugs, you are more likely to see both gay marriage and abortion as wrong.
  • If the room you are sitting in smells bad, you judge both controversial films and a person who didn’t return a wallet more harshly.
  • Washing our hands makes us feel less guilty about our own moral transgressions and making us prone to feel disgust results in us seeing wrongdoing in totally innocuous stories.

The Globe helpfully shares specifics of some initial research on disgust:

The father of modern disgust research is a psychologist named Paul Rozin. In a series of studies in the 1980s and 1990s that read like hidden-camera pranks, he set out to see how powerful the emotion was, and what exactly it was about disgusting things that repelled us. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Rozin served people cups of juice that a sterilized cockroach had been dropped into and offered others chocolate fudge shaped like dog poop. He asked whether subjects would wear a thoroughly laundered sweater that had once belonged to Adolf Hitler. In all those instances, most people refused, even though they knew the cockroach and sweater were clean and that the fudge was in fact fudge. They just felt disgusted.

And there’s more there if you’d like to read about ‘fart spray’ or ‘eating your pets’—these are tenure track researchers living out adolescent fantasies. It’s gross. Which is pretty much their point.

And our point, is this: if you want jurors to judge innocuous actions harshly or you want to drive home the point about ‘bad’ behavior—use subtly disgusting analogies, metaphors or expressions. You want to tie ‘disgust’ to the other side. Quietly. Subtly. Let jurors think it was their own reaction. Yes. It is disgusting. But isn’t it interesting as well?

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