Bitter or sweet? More than just a preference on our palate, they can dramatically alter our moral judgments.

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A Matter of Taste

Nov. 21, 2011

Kendall Eskine, Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology

Kendall Eskine, Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology

We take comfort in our moral beliefs. We consider them instilled by our upbringing, perhaps our faith, most definitely our sense of self. Whether they invoke moderate or strong opinions, our moral convictions shape the way we navigate the world.

Except when something doesn't suit our palate. A recent study conducted by Kendall Eskine when he was a doctoral candidate in the CUNY psychology program revealed that people should think twice about what they eat and drink in polite company. After giving volunteers drinks that tasted bitter, sweet or bland, the subjects were asked their opinion of various types of moral transgressions, ranging from a homeless man shoplifting clothes so he could go on a job interview to second cousins having a consensual sexual relationship. The bitter drink was Swedish bitters, an herbal supplement whose ingredients include thistle, angelica and sweet camphor; berry punch served as the sweet beverage; and water was used as a neutral, or control, beverage.

Following a premise proposed by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, Eskine, his thesis adviser, Brooklyn College Assistant Professor Natalie A. Kacinik, and their collaborator Jesse Prinz, distinguished professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, expected the subjects to make harsher moral judgments after drinking something that tastes like metallic mud than a sugary punch reminiscent of childhood. That premise held. But their second finding surprised them both and took Hume's assumption to another level.

Even eight months after the study was published to acclaim in the journal Psychological Science, Eskine — now an assistant professor of psychology at Loyola University in New Orleans — still gets excited when talking about the findings.

"We expected the bitter drink would bring about harsher judgments in our subjects. What we didn't expect was that people who identified themselves as politically conservative would make mush harsher judgments in the bitter condition," Eskine said, "but their judgments were less harsh with the sweet or neutral drinks. In contrast, the moral judgments of liberals were not significantly affected by taste."

Previous studies in moral judgment and emotions used scent or visual cues to measure changes in moral perception, but Eskine's study was the first to utilize taste and to investigate the different reception between political conservatives and liberals.

The Experiment

There was nothing special about the room, nothing that would stand out or feel threatening. When each of the 57 undergraduate participants entered the room on the fifth floor of James Hall, they found a couch, a table and a welcoming student much like themselves. They came from all backgrounds, nationalities and religions, and had volunteered to take part in the study for extra credit. Two undergraduate research assistants, Ben Cooley and Tom McAusland, worked closely with Eskine and Kacinik throughout the study and were instrumental in collecting the necessary data. They would take the students' information, give them a handout with the moral vignettes, and then hand them a small cup randomly filled with one of the three beverages. The students were led to believe that the experiment was examining the effects of motor interference, specifically how the arm worked when it brought something rapidly to the mouth. Instructed to drink the entire cup in one gulp, the students were then asked to read a series of vignettes and rate their offensiveness while a rank, sweet or neutral taste still lingered on their tongues.

"Collecting data for the experiment and being included in a scientific paper while I was an undergraduate was a huge experience for me," McAusland said. "What I learned was more than I could have ever learned in the classroom."

The Follow-Up

The published study drew attention from such national media outlets as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But in the meantime, Eskine was preparing two additional experiments to complete his dissertation. The next study explored whether just reading about a moral transgression would make something taste disgusting. This time around, the subjects first read vignettes that were morally virtuous, wrong or inconsequential (such as choosing a major). Immediately afterward they were all given the same beverage — watered-down Gatorade. Again, the results supported one another — after reading the morally negative vignette, subjects found the drink repellent, and those who identified as politically conservative found it even more so.

Kacinik explained the reasoning behind the final study: "The first two experiments demonstrate that our emotional experiences of disgust are intertwined with our moral judgments. But what if participants are directed to be mindful of their emotions? Will the disgust effect disappear?"

Participants were given all three beverages — bitter, sweet and neutral — at the same time they were asked to make moral judgments. The twist was that they were directed to suppress their taste reaction and instead concentrate on forming a deliberate, controlled judgment of the vignettes. The immediate effect was that no matter how long the individual taste lingered on the tongue, it no longer had an effect on the subject's moral decision making — unless they were politically conservative.

Given the study's full findings, Eskine explained, "conservatives may be more sensitive to external influences over their sense of morality and more likely to recruit their sensory identity into their moral judgments. But beyond this, that something as tenuous as what you eat or drink may affect your moral decision process brings up a host of questions about how we make important decisions in our lives."


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