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Simple Jury Persuasion: Make them eat brussel sprouts

Friday, April 1, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Our apologies to Marie Antoinette (if she ever actually said it). Brussel sprouts are what I think of when I think of disgusting foods.  And this post is all about disgust. But here, the brussel sprouts are a metaphor for what you want to leave jurors to contemplate. Leave a ‘nasty’ or bitter taste in their mouths and they are more morally judgmental and disgusted. And this will be especially true for the politically conservative jurors than others. Find this one hard to swallow? Read on.

Researchers from City University of New York decided to see how much of moral judgment might be linked to taste. We know it is linked to disgust but no one had ever researched the connection between taste and moral judgment.

The researchers gave participants either a sweet beverage, a bitter and disgusting beverage (probably either liquefied brussel sprouts or Swedish Bitters) or water. They were told to drink their ‘dose’ in a single swift motion “as if you were drinking a shot.” And then they had them rate various kinds of “moral transgressions”. We know you want to know what the transgressions were—and, in the interest of science we are providing them.

The transgressions included consensual incest between second cousins; a man eating his already-dead dog; a congressional representative accepting bribes; a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims; a person shoplifting; and finally, a student stealing library books.

Participants were asked to rate just how morally wrong these behaviors were on a scale from “not at all morally wrong” to “extremely morally wrong”. They also rated just how sweet, bitter, neutral or disgusting they found their beverage to be—from “not at all” to “very much”.

Participants who had the nasty and disgusting beverage were the most harsh in moral judgments.

Conservatives were harsher than liberals in the nasty and disgusting beverage condition.

So the moral of this research is that nasty tastes (like brussel sprouts for example) result in harsher judgments and that these harsher judgments are especially strong among political conservatives. They conclude their paper with that terrific John Ruskin quote:

“Taste is not only a part and index of morality, it is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is ‘What do you like?’ Tell me what you like, I’ll tell you what you are.”

So you probably can’t get jurors to drink liquid brussel sprouts. But verbal imagery of bitterness, sourness, and evocation of taste and odors can elicit similar effects.

Eskine KJ, Kacinik NA, & Prinz JJ (2011). A Bad Taste in the Mouth: Gustatory Disgust Influences Moral Judgment. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21307274

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