Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Moral Disgust II: Purism

In the last disgust post I went over some of our research showing that moral disgust mostly protects moral codes concerning the body. But I don't think that's all to disgust. I just haven't figured out the experiments to prove it.

See, there's a grab bag of other things from various other published studies out there that elicit disgust. One study of the role of emotions in attitudes toward various social groups found that disgust was predicted by two things. One is kind of obvious: the perception that a group threatens physical health (so, HIV patients, for example). The other is less obvious: the perception that a group threatens important values (gay men score high on this as well as, via the HIV perception, the disease kind of threat).

And then there's esthetic disgust, or I guess esthetic-moral disgust. This is not the esthetic disgust from a painting of rotting meat, but the disgust that comes from seeing something as "contaminating" a moralized esthetic category. And what sets apart a moralized esthetic category from the usual kind? Fortunately, Zak has just drawn a cartoon that explains this very point.

It's the disgust face that fans of black doom grindcore metal make when confronted with symphonic black doom grindcore. It's the disgust face that fans of the game with clerics and no thieves make when they come across the game with thieves and no clerics.

The second most subdivided form of entertainment there is.
Values, moralized preferences, cultural norms about sex and food and body decoration ... I suspect that what binds these all together, what throws those who violate them on the midden of disgust, is that these are learned primary associations to the concepts of "good" or "bad" that are hard to justify.

After all, it's hard to articulate why freedom is good or why your country is or why the greatest band in the world is that way or why exactly men get circumcised in your culture. There's always some after-the-fact reason like "it's just good" or "it's more healthy." But the truth is, you probably learned all these things as a primary, Pavlovian link between whatever it is - the flag, the band, the physically weird - and the concept of "good" or "bad." And you probably prefer to associate with people who share the same associations.

This is why, in our studies, people specifically have a hard time explaining their disgust at sexual transgressions, apart from self-referential concepts like "it's just disgusting" or "they're just evil." Other studies show that people also have a hard time explaining why their core values, like freedom, equality or tradition, should be followed.

Extending this to all kinds of values, it then stands to reason that you're less likely to be disgusted with someone who who agrees with you that racial equality is good, but thinks that school vouchers (or whatever solution you prefer) are not the way to get there; you're likely to feel anger, because that person is at least in your community and just being frustrating. But if the person comes out and says that racial equality is not a highly valuable thing, not even good - they're an outright racist - that's more likely to feel disgusting. That person has shown themselves to be outside your true community.

Would you rather people play XBox?
One thing I find interesting about this moral-preferences-esthetics-values disgust is that it has a very weird reaction profile. If my esthetics are pragmatic, then (let's say) I love strawberry ice cream, will make do with raspberry cause it's kind of like strawberry only raspier, and just loathe chocolate. But if they're moralized, I will actually love strawberry, hate raspberry because it's a pathetic imitation and mockery of what strawberry is supposed to be, and be indifferent to chocolate. I think this is a vestige of contagion fear that comes from applying disgust to these moralized preferences. But this has abolutely nothing to do with nerds, fans, and gamers right?

All this is because the disgust reaction forms the boundary of the community. (I don't set these posts up, I swear...) So I won't give suggestions for working today's lesson into your game, because really, it applies more to your life as a gamer.


  1. At last I see what anthros get excited about, regarding online "communities": I imagine an OSR community but I really don't know anything about the other people in my group. Every new issue seems to cut right through the middle of what I'd thought was a peaceful village, making boundaries between different groups of norms.

    Or at least it would if we didn't all expect that, online spats aside, face to face we'd probably have fun playing together ;)

    In that regard, maybe RPGs cut across other kinds of social boundaries?
    Sorry, I know this is OT.

  2. Do you really think anything in the realm of "I like 1e" / "I like 4e" or "I like blood and boobs in my art" / "I like ponies!!!" is on the same level as the visceral disgust the religious fundamentalists feel about people being gay? I follow your line of reasoning, but I'm not sure I'd call it 'disgust'. I have preferences for breakfast cereal and I think some of the stuff out there is gross, and even bad for you. It doesn't disgust me though.

  3. Thanks for posting this - it's helpful to understand the basis for my RPG snobbery. As much as I want to overcome it, sometimes purism wins.

    Though I'm not sure it's that simple. Let's say that, as an indie publisher, I get upset with retro-clones because I'm trying to sell something more original. Is my disgust at retro-clone success based on my sense of purity or frustration over poor sales?

    Just thinking out loud. It sometimes bothers me that I'm bothered about OSR, and maybe I just need to chill. At least this write-up helps me understand why. Thanks.

  4. @Richard & Stuart: Certainly some communities are more rigorously defended than others, but I'd argue it's the same disgust reaction, just at different levels of intensity. Just like seeing a dog turd on the ground and wading through a river of sewage both arouse disgust but at different levels.

    @Erin: You're welcome, that was my intention!