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Why Reading About the Rapture Leaves a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

New research is exploring the link between moral disgust and sensory disgust.

In a recent experiment, 82 undergrads, all self-described Christians, filed in for a test that researchers billed as a handwriting personality assessment.

First, though, the test-takers were offered a drink, a very diluted lemon-flavored glass of water, and asked to rate its sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and disgusting-ness. Then, they were asked to copy a short passage from either the Bible, The God Delusion, the Quran, or the dictionary. Finally, they were given another drink, which was supposedly different (but actually the same exact flavor).

What's remarkable is that the students found that second drink of lemony water tasted more disgusting after reading about Islam or atheism, according to Miller-McCune's Tom Jacobs report on the paper “Gross Gods and Icky Atheism," suggesting a link between moral taste and our literal taste taste.

It is the latest intriguing development in the controversial psychological research into moral emotions—the drivers that help explain why we think in vitro meat is disgusting, why Americans don't tend to eat fermented seafood (and Chinese don't tend to eat fermented milk), and why people don't eat fudge when it looks like feces. It turns out there's a link between our moral disgust and literal disgusts. And in many cases, our early food choices have been the cause.

In the Boston Globe, Drake Bennett explained:

Rotten meat is much more dangerous than rotten vegetables, and even today we're far more disgusted by things that come from animals than things that come from plants. But because disgust worked so well at getting people to steer clear of certain dangerous food—as well as the outward signs of contagious disease in other people (sores, pus and the like)—[Jonathan Haidt, author of the Happiness Hypothesis] and others hypothesize that as human society grew more complex, disgust also began to serve a social function.


Disgust is not limited to drinking lemon-water and disgust alone cannot tell you how to detect pathogens in meat. So the bigger question here may be how we change. Can reading about atheism over time would alleviate feelings of disgust? Will we accept in vitro meats with prolonged exposure? After all, as Bennett points out, sharing a water fountain with a person of another race was once unthinkable.

And while the connection's far from absolute, the work makes me wonder if firm non-believers reading or writing about the rapture felt or tasted something akin to disgust. Could an awareness about the roots of disgust help us be more tolerant in the future?

Photo (cc) by Flickr user impatient.

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