Hypnotic “Disgust”?

November 10th, 2011

In my previous article I wrote of the need for more scientific studies of the effects, applicability and usefulness of hypnosis. This bizarre but interesting study by Wheatley and Haidt was not at all what I had in mind!

Wheatley and Haidt were trying to find out whether, and to what extent, a negative affective state such as “disgust” could influence the severity of moral judgements. This was how they set about it:

A group of highly hypnotizable subjects were given a post-hypnotic suggestion to feel a “flash” of disgust whenever they should read a randomly chosen common word. They were then presented with some short, written scenarios outlining a “moral” situation. Some of these contained the cue-word for disgust, some did not. The results, according to the study, show that moral judgements are grounded in “affectively laden moral intuitions”.

Experiment 1: a group of 64 highly hypnotizable people (19 male, 45 female) were divided into two groups. The first group was given a post-hypnotic suggestion to experience disgust at the word “often”, the second to feel disgust at the word “take”. After the hypnotic session the group as a whole was given some written “moral” scenarios. Each scenario outlined a moral “transgression” and two rating scales, one rating how morally “wrong” the transgression was, the other, how “disgusting” the reader found it. The six scenarios are as follows:

i. Two second-cousins have a sexual relationship.
ii. A man eats his dead pet dog.
iii. A politician takes bribes.
iv. A laywer chases ambulances
v. A shoplifter at work.
vi. A student steals library books.

As well as receiving the disgust-inducing post-hypnotic cue for either take or often the group were told to forget any instructions offered under hypnosis. In other words, they would feel disgust at the cue words but they would have no conscious idea why.

Result: participants rated the scenarios which contained the cue-word as more disgusting than those without the key word. They also rated the cue-word transgressions as more morally wrong.

A second experiment was carried out using a different group of high-hypnotizables. The only difference between the two experiments was that in the second experiment a further moral question was added to each of the six vignettes. The further question did not contain the disgust cue-word and was added to see whether and to what extent the initial disgust association would influence further moral judgements related to the original scenario. In the words of the study, it was found that “the disgust did not bleed over to affect judgements of subsequent items”. ]

What, if anything, does this bizarre experiment prove? The experiment certainly seems to provide some proof that a negative affective state such as disgust can affect the severity of moral judgements. But has this given us any new information? And how trustworthy are these findings.

At a commonsense level it is not hard to believe that people’s moral judgements are affected by how they feel. We have all experienced illness, and we all now how our physical state can make us feel cranky, thin-skinned, hasty and intolerant. Yet so much will depend upon the type of negative affective experience and upon the person who experiences it. It also accords with commonsense that a person may experience considerable pain and discomfort and yet bear their condition with the greatest equanimity, their judgements, moral or otherwise, in no way being adversely influenced by their physical condition.

If we dig a little deeper, the limitations of this experiment become all too clear.

Firstly, as is so often the case with such studies, we are told nothing whatsoever about the type of hypnotic induction used or about the person performing it. Highly hypnotizable people may pick up on all sorts of influences of which the experimenters are totally unaware. Was the hypnotist a man or a woman? Were they young or old? How did they dress? Was there some way in which the subliminal suggestion of (moral) authority might have been conveyed to the subjects of the experiment? If the hypnotist were well-spoken, mature, seemingly well-educated, firm-voiced, conservatively dressed, then perhaps an association of moral, or even parental, authority might have been conveyed by the hypnotic induction process and somehow attached itself to the post-hypnotic suggestion concerning the two cue-words.

Secondly, the experimenters seem to have some pretty vague notions as to what constitutes a “moral” transgression. In the UK at least, sex and / or marriage between cousins, even first cousins, is neither illegal nor particularly frowned upon. But is this true of, say, Bible – belt America? (Note: we are told nothing of the participants’ cultural or racial backgrounds). And why is it immoral to eat a dead dog? Disgusting, certainly – but immoral?

The real weakness of this experiment lies in the lack of clarity, if not outright confusion, over the concepts of “disgust” on the one hand and “morality” on the other. The inclusion of the “dead dog” scenario would suggest that the disgusting and the immoral are one and the same. But this cannot be the basic assumption of the experiment because if it were then the whole exercise would be rendered meaningless. If people are offered a post-hypnotic cue which provokes a reaction to immorality (a flash of disgust) when two cue words are read then it can hardly be surprising if subsequent “moral” judgements are thereby affected.

The concluding paragraph of the study makes it clear that the, whatever appearances to the contrary, the experimenters do not regard disgust and morality as parts of the same whole but as two sides of a polarity. They regard the outcome of their experiments as providing an illustration of Hume’s famous dictum that “Reason is and ought to be only the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Treatise Book 2, part 2, section 3). Disgust is an emotion whereas morality is an exercise of reason – not a view held by one of Hume’s more recent disciples:

“But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgement, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely “emotive”. It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (A J Ayer Language, Truth and Logic Chapter 6 p 111)

Maybe all this experiment really shows is the desperate need for more and better teaching of moral philosophy as part of the standard education curriculum…

Ayer, A. J., (1971) Language, Truth and Logic, Pelican Books

Hume, D., (1888) A Treatise of Human Nature ed. Selby-Bigge, Oxford University Press.

Wheatley, T., Haidt, J., (2005) Hypnotic Disgust Makes Moral Judgements More Severe, Psychological Science vol 15 no. 10

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