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I’m disgusted (until I wash my hands and feel purified)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

It’s not just Pontius Pilate and Lady MacBeth, all of us feel better with clean hands. The disgust literature is everywhere these days. As it turns out, disgust is a powerful emotional motivator.

Researchers recently attempted to see if being even minimally involved in activities that brought participants into contact with religious beliefs different from their own would cause disgust. And it did! So they checked to see if having participants wash their hands following “unclean contact” would erase the disgust. And it did!

Participants were recruited based on their self-identifying as Christian. They then participated in an alleged taste test evaluating two different beverages. After the first beverage, they rated how “disgusting” it was and then while waiting for their “palate to cleanse”, participants copied text from either the Qur’an, a book by an atheist or the dictionary. Then, they were asked to rate a second beverage on how disgusting it was.

Researchers found that when Christian subjects were asked to copy text from the Qur’an or from an atheist text—they were more disgusted by the bitter drink than when they copied text from a dictionary.

So, as a follow-up study, researchers again elicited disgust (with new participants) and then allowed them to wash their hands [using the guise of ‘testing’ an antiseptic hand-wipe] following the copying of the ‘disgusting’ text.

And, you guessed it. Those who had ‘tested’ the antiseptic hand-wipe were not disgusted as those in the first experiment were.

The researchers focus on how disturbing these findings are for any hope of increased understanding between various religious groups. If even a minimal contact (writing a piece of text) elicits disgust, how can we hope to have meaningful dialogue between those whose beliefs are at odds?

And as always, we look at the implications for litigation advocacy. What does this mean when your client believes differently than the jury? We’ve seen examples of this same idea in previous research. The spiritual beliefs we hold dear are self-defining. And we feel those beliefs are threatened, we react with, well, disgust.

If your client is ‘different’, whether due to religious beliefs, ethnicity, lifestyle, sexuality, values, or some other difference that makes a difference—you need to focus on creating an identity that shares key values/beliefs with the jury. They may be different in some ways, but not in every way.  Seize the commonalities and focus on them.  Don’t allow the accused behavior or the appearance of differentness to control your witness’ identity in the minds of jurors.

Directly address our discomfort with ‘differences’ and how being different should not keep someone from experiencing fair treatment. We are all different in some ways.

What’s most important is to always keep in mind how seemingly small things can trigger larger reactions. Whether it’s facial scars, eyeglasses, race, religious beliefs, or something like a camera angle—you want to be aware of how a seemingly random characteristic might effect a juror’s decisions.

Ritter, RS, & Preston, JL. (2011). Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

You may also be interested in a new article in this issue of The Jury Expert on the dangers of disgust in the courtroom.


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