Anger and Disgust at Moral Violations

Are anger and disgust at moral violations really the same emotion?

Posted May 30, 2017

Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons

My Facebook feed has three kinds of posts. People give happy and sad updates about their lives. They promote things they are doing and writing. And they link to stories about current events.

The current event stories are generally more negative than positive. This difference has been true over almost my entire period on social media, so it does not seem to reflect who is president. When people post a story about something that upsets them, they either express anger or disgust.

These emotions are used so often in relation to these negative stories that you might think they are completely interchangeable. A paper in the May, 2017 issue of Psychological Science by Catherine Molho, Joshua Tybur, Ezgi Guler, Daniel Balliet, and Wilhelm Hofmann suggests that these emotions are distinct when applied to moral situations.

These authors argue that anger and disgust differ because anger leads to a sense that someone should respond directly and aggressively toward the person who offended. Disgust, on the other hand, leads to more indirect aggression like social exclusion.

They explore this possibility in two ways. First, they examine whether anger and disgust tend to occur in different situations. Second, they explore the actions people want to take following a moral violation depending on whether they experienced anger or disgust.

In one study, over 1,000 participants were signaled several times a day via their smart phones. They were asked to report moral or immoral actions that occurred in the time before the signal. They were asked whether there was a moral or immoral event and whether they were the target or someone else was. They also gave ratings of their emotional response to the event.

The focus of the analyses was on the immoral events that were reported. Overall, people expressed more anger at actions that were directed toward themselves than at actions that were directed at others. There was a tendency for people to express more disgust for actions directed at others than at themselves, but this difference was not statistically significant. Across several studies, though, there was a small tendency for people to experience more disgust at actions taken against others than actions taken against themselves.

Another study in this series related emotional reactions to an event to the desired response to the event. In this study, participants read about a situation in which they went to a party and piled their coats on a bed in the house where the party was held. Toward the end of the party, a guest flicked ash from a cigarette on the pile of coats and damaged the coat at the top of the pile. Some participants read that the coat that was damaged was theirs. Other participants read that another person’s coat was damaged, while theirs was unharmed.

Then, participants looked at pictures of a variety of facial expressions—including expressions of anger and disgust—and rated which one matched their reaction to the situation. They also rated how likely they were to engage in a series of actions in response to the situation. Some of those actions were direct aggression like yelling at the person who flicked the ash. Other actions were indirect like telling someone else about what happened or talking negatively about the person who flicked the ash.

In this study, participants generally selected angry faces rather than disgusted ones. However, the tendency to select the angry face was stronger when their own coat was damaged than when someone else’s was damaged. They tended to select the disgusted face more often when another person’s coat was damaged rather than their own.

People whose own coat was damaged were more likely to rate that they would respond directly and aggressively toward the ash-flicker than people who witnessed someone else’s coat being damaged. People were about equally likely to endorse indirect forms of aggression regardless of whose coat was damaged.

A final statistical analysis linked people’s emotional reaction to the action they wanted to take. The more anger someone said they experienced, the more likely they were to want to respond directly to the person who damaged a coat. The more disgust they said they experienced, the more likely they were to want to respond indirectly.

Putting this together, these results suggest that the emotions of anger and disgust reflect different motivations for punishing someone who makes a moral transgression. Anger reflects motivation to want to respond directly to the person who did something wrong. Disgust reflects motivation to want to take indirect action like talking about that person to others. 

The emotions of anger and disgust are obviously much more complicated than this.  People clearly experience anger and disgust for events that are not related to moral violations. In addition, the relationship between the target of an action and the emotional reaction is not perfect. That said, this study does increase our understanding of these complex emotions.

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Molho, C., Tybur, J.M., Guler, E., Balliet, D., & Hofmann, W. (2017). Disgust and anger relate to different aggressive responses to moral violations. Psychological Science, 28(5), 609-619.