7/17/2019 Peter Durantine

New Research Shows We Forgive Trifling Pain, But Not Trifling Dirt

Cleanliness is next to godliness, as the proverb goes, but God help you if you don’t keep yourself well-bathed and properly groomed on any given day. According to research by a Franklin & Marshall professor, people are likely to have a very negative reaction, nearly as strong as their reaction would be if you never bathed or groomed.

That research, by the College’s Joshua Rottman, assistant professor of psychology, showed a cognitive distinction between purity-based and harm-based morals that challenges current wisdom regarding the role of outcomes in forming moral judgments. 

“Levels of moral condemnation often scale with outcome severity (e.g., extreme destruction is morally worse than moderate damage), but this is not always true,” said Rottman, who co-authored the research, recently published in Psychological Science, with Associate Professor Liane Young at Boston College. 

Rottman and Young investigated whether judgments of purity transgressions are more or less sensitive to variation in dosage than judgments of harm transgressions. In three studies, adults made moral evaluations of harm and purity transgressions that systematically varied in dosage (i.e., frequency and magnitude). 

Pairs of low-dosage and high-dosage transgressions, presented with the same sets of modifiers (occasionally/regularly or small/large) or amounts (millimeter/centimeter), were reused across moral domains. 

“The statistical interactions between domain and dosage indicated robust distinctions between the perceived wrongness of high-dosage and low-dosage harms, while moral evaluations of impure acts were considerably less influenced by dosage,” Rottman said. 

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution compels judges not to impose excessive bail, fines or “cruel and unusual punishments,” a moral intuition that has been codified in the system of criminal justice. 

“The intention is that moral judgments and subsequent punishments should scale in proportion with the severity of harm caused,” Rottman said. “However, in our homes and our workplaces, we are the judge and jury; we may not evaluate all wrongs under this form of proportionality.

As Rottman explained, some wrongs, like those that are perceived as violating the cleanliness of a person’s body or the sanctity of a object, may trigger immediate and lasting condemnation.

“We find evidence that people judge harmful actions on a scale of magnitude and frequency, but they are less sensitive to the severity of outcomes when they judge impure actions,” he said.

Rottman said the findings are “chillingly reminiscent” of the “One-Drop Rule” imposed in the South prior to the Civil War when the state courts determined that whites were not racially pure if they had a distant African ancestor. 

“Our findings may also help explain barriers to tackling modern challenges like climate change. They may prevent people from appreciating how environmental impacts scale continuously with increasing pollution and carbon-dioxide concentrations if these impacts are viewed as contaminating rather than harmful,” he said.

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