The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

The Bite Heard Round the World

Is it all about disgust?

As we all probably know by now, Luiz Suarez, the star forward for the Uruguay soccer team, took a bite out of an apple, bark that looked liked food, crime Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. As a result, he has been suspended from all soccer-related activity for four months. While not everyone thinks that Suarez should've received this harsh of a penalty, it is safe to say that almost everyone gets a sense of shock and repulsion from Suarez's behavior. Some people were downright outraged by it; ESPN announcer Taylor Twellman called it the worst thing that a player can do to another player, labeling it "gross" and a "disgrace" on Twitter

The actual harm done to Chiellini was fairly minor. I mean, I wouldn't want to be bit like that, and I am sure it hurt like crazy, but I would take it any day over a punch to the face, for instance, or someone attempting to break my leg with a reckless tackle, or this Kung Fu Kick. Of course, I am not attempting to stand up for Suarez or justify what he did. It was shocking, to say the least. But I can't help but think this is an example of disgust taking over the wheel (a future Carrie Underwood hit I am sure), so to speak.

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According to Jonathan Haidt's "social intuitionist" model of moral reasoning, people highly underestimate the role of emotion in their moral decision-making. In other words, when you ask people why they made a moral decision, they generally can come up with all sorts of reasonable sounding justifications. But, even when these reasons are stripped away, people still rate the behavior as wrong and immoral. For instance, if people are asked to consider the morality of a brother and sister having sex, they will say things about it being morally wrong because of potential for disease, potential social ridicule, concerns over coercion, impacting the brother-sister relationship negatively, and so on. But if you take away those reasons (they still get along as well as ever, they liked it, it never happened again, they used protection, no one else found out), people still rate the behavior as disgusting and revolting.

Even when disgust is primed subliminally, so that people have no chance to generate reasons why something is moral or immoral (as they don't even know they were made disgusted), people still become more punitive. And unlike anger, for instance, research shows that it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to "reason away" disgust. 

Some research even suggests that the need to perceive ourselves as distinct from other (non-biting animals) is linked to both disgust and concerns over our own mortality. Mortality thoughts both increase disgust to animalistic aspects of human nature (e.g., bathroom activity) and the perception that humans are not like other animals.

From an evolutionary perspective, disgust is essential to human survival, both in terms of protecting the physical body from disease and contagion but also in terms of social group cohesion. When a moral violation occurs, the sense of disgust increases the desire to punish the moral violator. And disgust — even more so than anger — cannot be reasoned with. Hence, people avoid violating group norms for fear of social exclusion.

What I am saying is essentially this. Yes, Suarez did an incredibly stupid thing. And despite the amazing internet memes this event has produced, (my two favorites are "bite line technology" and "hungry hungry Suarez") it was a despicable act. But the intense reaction isn't probably because of some well-reasoned ethical argument or because of some grand moral philosophy that people hold to. Suarez's bite is so shocking because of the primal sense of disgust that it elicits. That is why people want him punished so severely.

Whether or not he should be is an entirely different question that we can reasonably disagree on, presumably while agreeing that Diego Maradona's response is a bit, well, questionable to say the least.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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