Disgust and Self Interest

In a study involving 600 participants, researchers found that individuals were more likely to engage in self-interested behaviors such as lying and cheating after writing essays or viewing film scenes that provoked feelings of disgust than those who had not.

The experiment, which involved equal numbers of men and women, was part of a study co-authored by Karen Page Winterich of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business in University Park; Vikas Mittal of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston, Texas; and Andrea Morales of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe.

In another set of experiments, researchers asked participants to evaluate cleansing products such as disinfectants and body wash after experiencing a sense of disgust. They found that this group was no more likely to engage in deception than those in a control group who had experienced neutral emotions. People often don’t realize they feel disgust, which can be caused by something as simple as a newspaper article. The emotion triggers a sense of self-protection, the authors explain—which can lead to self-interested behaviors such as lying, stealing, and cheating.

If companies create clean environments—or even make someone think of cleaning—they could mitigate the effects of disgust and encourage greater cooperation. The question for companies, says Mittal, is “how do you create an environment that is less emotionally cluttered so you can become progressively more thoughtful?”

“Protect Thyself: How Affective Self-protection Increases Self-interested, Unethical Behavior” was published in the November 2014 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.