The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Disgust Prompts People to Reject Unfair Deals

Does Sadness or Disgust Prompt People to Fight Unfairness?

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 9: You are buying a new home, and dealing with an unethical realtor. At the last minute, the realtor tells you about a hefty fee he had not mentioned earlier. This is very unfair. You notice the TV is on. You are most likely to walk away from the unfair deal if
a) The TV show is violent
b) The TV show is sad
c) The TV show is a sports program
d) The TV show is disgusting

The correct answer is D — disgust, not anger or sadness, prompts people to walk away from unfair deals.

I based this puzzle on research by Laura Moretti and Giuseppe di Pellegrino, who found that when they activated different emotions among volunteers asked to accept or reject an unfair deal, disgust prompted many more people to walk away from the deal. The experiment clearly shows the hidden brain at work, because the volunteers were all offered the same scenario, except that different volunteers were prompted to feel sad, disgusted etc.

A particularly interesting facet of the experiment, which was published in the journal Emotion, was that the reaction was limited to situations where volunteers believed they were interacting with another person. When the volunteers felt that they were dealing with a computer which handed them an unfair deal (presumably because of random choice), prompting the volunteers to feel disgusted had no effect on their walking away from the deal.

At a certain level, the experiment confirms what many of us understand intuitively: Disgust prompts people to move away from something that offends their sensibilities — we may seek to fight with the driver who makes us angry by rear-ending our car, but when we are confronted by someone who does something we perceive as disgusting, we want to put distance between that person and ourselves.

They wrote, “disgust is associated with … being too close to something revolting, or to an indigestible object or idea, and it is characterized by the desire to expel current objects and refuse contact with the offending agent. Sadness, on the other hand, revolves around the theme of irrevocable loss and helplessness, and the action tendency typically linked with it is passivity, inertia, and withdrawal, or preference for options that provide greater reward, comfort, or indulgence.”

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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