Disgusting Environments Lead to Unethical Behavior

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Looking at disgusting things seems to prompt selfish, unethical behavior, but being reminded of cleanliness seems to cancel out that effect, according to a new study out of Rice University’s Graduate School of Business. 

In a series of experiments, lead author Vikas Mittal and colleagues showed some of the study volunteers images intended to invoke disgust: cat litter, diapers, the bathroom scene from Trainspotters. Afterwards, the participants did a series of tasks that were designed to tempt them into cheating and lying for their own personal gain, and the people who’d seen the gross stuff were more likely to behave badly. But a separate study was a little different, according to the press release:

In another set of experiments, after inducing the state of disgust on participants, the researchers then had them evaluate cleansing products, such as disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes. Those who evaluated the cleansing products did not engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion condition.

So seeing images that brought to mind cleanliness seemed to cancel out the selfish behavior prompted by feeling disgusted. “At the basic level … if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted,” Mittal said in the press release. “If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other.”

The link between feeling disgusted and behaving unethically is interesting on its own, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to apply the findings of the experiment that made people look at diapers and cat litter to the workplace. Yes, my desk is usually buried in piles of Post-Its and print-outs of academic journal articles, but thus far I’ve managed to keep my work station free of feces, thanks. (That said, I will probably take a minute to clean my desk this afternoon. Just in case.)