Disgust may lead to unethical behavior …


but there's a way to wipe the slate clean, according to Jones School Professor Vikas Mittal’s research.


The Big Ideas

  • Researchers have understood that disgust influences how harshly people judge others’ unethical behavior, but until now they have not noted how disgust causes people to act selfishly and engage in unethical behavior themselves.
  • It only takes small cues to trigger disgust, which then triggers people to act in ways that have a negative impact on others.
  • Yet, interestingly, just thinking about cleansing products or actually washing your hands can eliminate these negative behavioral effects.
  • By understanding how emotional states influence decision-making and behavior, managers can become more thoughtful about their own emotional states and those of their employees, to the benefit of their company’s bottom line.

Many of us have heard the proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Though not a direct quote from the Old Testament of the Bible, it seems to have stemmed from some of the book’s admonitions to avoid the “unclean.” These warnings likely served the purpose of helping people avoid contaminants that spread disease. The unclean also tends to elicit the visceral emotional and physical response of disgust.


People are hard-wired to respond with disgust, and it doesn’t take much to do it. Just watching a gross scene from a movie or thinking about products like diapers can elicit the emotion. And that emotion influences people to become more selfish: They focus on taking care of themselves, like moving away from the offending object or substance, for example. Disgust triggers an important self-protective mechanism. But can self-protection go too far?


Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing of the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, along with a team of professors from Smeal College of Business and W.P. Carey School of Business, demonstrated in previous research that when people feel disgusted, they view others’ unethical behaviors more harshly. But they wanted to take the study of disgust’s effects a step further and sought to explore how the emotion might influence people’s own unjust behaviors. They also explored what can be done to undo the influence of disgust.


The first part of the hypothesis was this: If disgust creates a self-protective response in people, and people who are in a self-protective state of mind are more prone toward acting in ways that benefit themselves at the expense of others, then eliciting disgust in individuals should cause them to more likely engage in unethical, self-serving behaviors than their non-disgusted counterparts.


And why is this important? The tendency to lie and cheat to get ahead has a huge financial and social impact. People returning clothes to a store or swiping small items without paying cost retailers an estimated $37.5 billion a year. Workers pilfering office supplies might seem innocuous enough, but cost organizations more than $10 billion annually. And research shows that the more unethical behavior is engaged in by our peers, the more the behavior becomes the norm. And this unethical culture has huge societal impacts that can’t be quantified with dollars.


The researchers conducted three experiments evoking disgust through various means. Each experiment had a control group, so that researchers could compare the disgusted participants to the neutral ones. Further, random assignment ensured that causal conclusions could be established. In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products such as anti-diarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter, and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched that disgusting toilet scene from the movie Trainspotting. Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain.


The results? Disgusted participants lied about the results of a coin toss in order to gain monetary reward. They lied about solving an unsolvable puzzle to obtain money. They were even willing to deceive partners for financial gain. Time and again, people who experienced disgust engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not, just as the researchers had predicted.


After demonstrating that disgust leads to unethical behaviors, the team wanted to see if this negative effect could be wiped clean. Researchers had already shown how cleansing thoughts, scents (like citrus-scented Windex), and behaviors can actually increase pro-social behaviors as well as leniency and condemnation of others’ unethical acts. So, Mittal and his colleagues theorized that cleansing behaviors might actually mitigate the self-serving effects of disgust. In another set of experiments, after inducing the state of disgust on participants, researchers then had them evaluate cleansing products, such as disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes. Those who evaluated the cleansing products did not engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion condition.


In other words, cleansing can actually eliminate disgust’s negative impact on behavior.


The upshot? It serves managers and leaders to understand the impact, both ethical and unethical, of emotions on decision-making. By understanding that ethical decision-making can be influenced by very small contextual cues, leaders can set aside time to rid themselves of distractions that might impact their decisions. And finally, not only does cleanliness matter, but even the mere thought of cleanliness can influence more ethical behavior.


Reference: For more information, see “Protect Thyself: How Affective Self-Protection Increases Self-Interested Behavior” by Vikas Mittal, Andrea Morales, and Karen Page Winterich, forthcoming Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.