What emotions are important in moral decision-making, and why are they important?

People not only call dirty toilets and spoiled food “disgusting”, but also moral transgressions. But is moral disgust restricted to transgressions that contain disgust reminders, like gory murders and perverted sexual crimes, or can “clean” transgressions also evoke disgust? We have found that people report disgust and make disgusted facial expressions when they are treated unfairly, and that individual differences in sensitivity to basic disgust predict how severely people will morally condemn acts of physical harm. These findings suggest that disgust has made a dramatic leap out of the physical world and into the moral domain. Ongoing research in the lab is investigating why clean transgressions evoke disgust, whether drinking a bitter liquid influences moral judgments, and whether it’s morally wrong to accidentally do something disgusting.

How many emotions do we have, and what should we call them?

Scientists have studied human emotions since the time of Darwin, and yet the question of how emotions are organized remains unanswered. According to “lumpers”, emotions are best described by a low number of emotional dimensions, such as valence (positive-negative) and arousal (sleepy-awake). By contrast, “splitters” argue that there are a number of qualitatively different emotions like anger, surprise, happiness and so on. We have found that disgust has distinctive effects on attention and memory over and above the influence of emotional dimensions, consistent with a splitter’s perspective. Ongoing research in the lab is investigating other potentially unique effects of disgust, including its impact on bodily physiology and emotion regulation.