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Choosing to either disgust your jurors or tick them off

Wednesday, January 26, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

We know that if we want higher damage awards, we would rather have jurors mad than have them sad. But with all the focus on moral psychology (and particularly disgust) we thought it would make sense to look at whether having disgusted jurors is just as good as having angry jurors. Our hunch was that mad would be better because disgust would lead to a veritable throwing up of jurors’ hands and a desire for neither party to prevail.  We see that sort of reaction a lot in family disputes—a sort of ‘pox on both of your houses’. But we still wondered. And like great minds with a single thought—some researchers from the UK came to our rescue.

Recent research compared anger and disgust when it comes to impact on changes in moral judgment. That is, is anger or disgust more likely to change minds (and hearts) in a situation where someone has been wronged, and will it mobilize people to right that wrong?

The researchers had two conditions: a person kicks a dog (the harm/fairness condition) and a person eats a dead dog (the purity violation condition). One makes you morally outraged, the other may disgust you.  [It should be acknowledged that both conditions are tough on the dog.]

Participants in the study were asked to rate their reactions to the morality of these two behaviors and then told to generate scenarios that could change their opinion about the behavior.

We often do this in pretrial research focus groups by inquiring after all evidence has been presented—“For those of you who disagree [with a proposition] what more would you have to hear from to be convinced?” and “What more would you have wanted to hear for you to change your mind?  What evidence would you require to support the other side?

In this research, participants were asked to generate examples of what would have to be present for them to change their minds about the behavior. (For example, the dog had just bitten an infant child or perhaps, the person had been without food for days and the dog just died so the person cooked and ate the meat to survive.)

Those participants in the harm/fairness condition [where the dog was kicked] were less angry after generating scenarios that could change their opinion but in the purity violation condition [where the dog was eaten] the anger increased a bit. A purity violation is apparently harder to overcome with “what if” scenarios. The researchers hypothesize that moral anger is more flexible than moral disgust as

anger changed more than disgust in response to these novel circumstances and had more to do with changes in moral judgment”.

So the answer is that it depends. (Go figure.) Sometimes (depending what side you are on) you don’t want to disgust your jurors. You want to make them angry in order to evoke actions to fix the situation. Other times (again, depending on what side you are on) you want them to be disgusted so they stay stuck. Possibly, the turning point is whether there is a credible circumstance that could justify or mitigate the offensive behavior.

Disgust is less flexible, like sadness. When you are sad, you are sad. You feel helpless and hopeless. When you are disgusted, you are mired in the disgust.

And according to this research, once disgusted you are not prone to become tolerant. If, on the other hand, your disgust morphs into anger over that disgusting behavior—you are likely primed to act in the deliberation room.

Russell, P., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2010). Moral anger is more flexible than moral disgust. Social Psychological and Personality Science

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