Pizarro discusses effects of disgust on decision-making

“I’ll admit, I’m high on disgust sensitivity,” he said. “So much so that I can’t look at the stimuli we use in our studies.”

The balancing act of emotions was at the heart of Pizarro’s morning lecture delivered Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

In one example, he spoke of his sister, a corporate lawyer who lives in California. During a normal phone call, their conversation was interrupted by her road rage, resulting in her shouting a curse so profane, we dare not print it (it rhymes with “ducking castle”).

One of Pizarro’s colleagues used the anecdote in an article, which was then forwarded to Pizarro’s sister by their 80-year-old father via Facebook. Suffice it to say, Pizarro said, his sister was not pleased.

But it is a good case study of how emotion can overwhelm even the most intelligent person, he said.

In the Western world, Pizarro said it seems intuitive to think emotions are inherently at odds with rationality, reason and logic. Emotions are viewed as interfering with self-interest and consistency, both words associated with rationality.

But emotion trumping reason is not always the best.

According to Pizarro, there was a noticeable drop in airline travel in the months after 9/11. The summer of 2002 saw an increase in traffic fatalities as a result. Despite the fact that people are at much higher risk for car accidents than airplane incidents, the trauma of witnessing the terror attacks influenced people to act in a way that was against their self-interest.

On a more basic level, an emotion such as disgust might irrationally prevent some from trying foods they might like.

“For all I know, tapioca pudding is wonderful,” Pizarro said. “But I’m not going to eat it.”

Plato related emotions to horses of passion led by the reins of a charioteer who represents reason and intellect. The horses provide the power to move forward, but without a guide, they can run wild.

Pizarro said it is a Western tradition to look at the mind this way. Sigmund Freud defined the mind as three distinct parts: the id, baser uncontrollable emotions; the superego, representing conscience and ethics; and the ego as the balance of these two.

He also cited philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said as moral creatures, humans ought to let reason dominate and be reflective, not reactive.

“Emotions make us more like animals, it was believed,” Pizarro said.

Some of this was reflected in the psychological research into emotion. It was primarily conducted on animals with which humans share the mammalian brain. Specifically, rats are commonly used as test subjects. Emotions such as fear that trigger a fight-or-flight response are fast and immediate, made of the evolutionary imperative to survive. They require no deliberation, he said. By nature, they bypass reason.

“If you saw a lion and had to deliberate, ‘I wonder if this is one of those friendly lions. Let me pull out my calculator and figure out the base rate of who gets eaten by lions,’ ” he said. “By that time, you’re eaten. In evolutionary terms, it’s amazing that economists exist.”

Humans are obviously more complex than animals, Pizarro said, and sometimes, we “overfire” our emotional cylinders. It can be powerful enough to change perception.

“If the result is living, emotions can be rational in the sense of self-preservation,” he said.

It is the emotional response that stops one from repeatedly burning his or her hand on a stove by learning not to do it. Not having such an instinct can be the result of brain damage.

What has thrown humanity’s hardwired emotional responses for a loop is the rapidly changing environment and stimuli, Pizarro said.

“That’s why we need economists [to not be eaten by lions] so they can tell us the facts,” he said.

The goal is to use psychological tools to improve decision-making and identify good and bad emotions.

Over the last several decades, Pizarro said the question of rationality becomes more complicated. The research is no longer speculative. After what he termed the “affective revolution” of the mid-20th century, the 1980s and ’90s brought change. The studies were no longer concerned with simply understanding emotional impulse, but understanding individual emotive impulses, like Pizarro’s area of expertise: disgust.

Disgust, he said, is about more than sensory revulsion. The reactions usually reserved for bad-tasting food are the same elicited by pictures, odors and people.

For example, wrinkling the nose prevents pathogens to enter the nose but can happen regardless of smell. Sticking out the tongue, even when the subject of disgust isn’t a taste, is another reaction coming from an attempt to expel an unwanted flavor.

In rhetoric, Pizarro said people use the terminology to tag “undesirables.” In the past, these included women, Jews and homosexuals. It’s a common role in dehumanization he said.

Conservatives are, in aggregate, more easily disgusted, Pizarro said, especially over social issues like gay marriage and abortion. He theorized this may be the origin of the term “dirty hippie” as a derogatory term for the bare-footed pacifists.

Disgust is felt via correlation. For example, Pizarro and his team experimented whether a room with the odor of a fart spray would result in judgment or value changes. They measured this through feeling thermometers that asked questions about immigrants or homosexuals. The foul smell reduced warm feelings, resulted in more conservative decisions, and made moral judgments more severe and punitive.

“Liberals can be just as irrational, but in different ways,” Pizarro said.

For example, they are more likely to feel disgusted at genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as “unnatural.”

What are we to make of these effects? Pizarro said it can help determine when it is and isn’t appropriate to let emotions influence decision-making. If it’s simply disgust dictating behavior, then a hard look at the attitudes behind it is in order.

“Through having Dan [Ariely, yesterday’s speaker] as my mentor, I’ve learned to use the brute force of my reasoning to come to different views,” he said. “That said, don’t walk around barefoot, get dirty and come to my house.”