Stealing is not gross: language distinguishes visceral disgust from moral violations

Am J Psychol. 2013 Fall;126(3):275-86. doi: 10.5406/amerjpsyc.126.3.0275.


The similarity between moral and visceral disgust is a current topic of debate. One method of investigating this issue has been to examine the use of language. Prior work has shown that the words disgust and anger are often used interchangeably to describe offense toward immoral behavior involving harm (autonomy violations), whereas "grossed out" is reserved for viscerally repulsive stimuli. Based on these findings we developed a questionnaire and tested 126 undergraduates for how they used the words disgusted, angry, grossed out, and morally right or morally wrong to rate various responses toward ethics of autonomy social situations. We found that grossed out was least endorsed for these transgressions and that ratings on this measure did not correspond to ratings of moral wrongness. Moreover, individual differences in visceral disgust sensitivity had no association with participants' evaluations or use of any of the descriptors. By contrast, ratings for angry and disgusted were equivalently and highly endorsed for autonomy violations, and the ratings given with these descriptors also corresponded to the ratings given for moral wrongness. These findings add to growing evidence that moral disgust is not visceral (gross) but rather appears to be representative of anger even though autonomy violations are often labeled as "disgusting".

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Semantics*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult