Friday, May 31, 2013

Anger, disgust, and mitigating factors

Third in the series from Cognition & Emotion

This one is one of my VERY favorite topics because it has to do with judging the immoral activities of others.  Whether you like it or not, we are often forced to do this, either when sitting on a jury, being a parent, or being a boss at work.  It also comes up a lot now with terrorist investigations, foreign policy, and other political issues.

A study by Piazza, Russell, and Sousa looked at what happens when someone’s immoral acts makes us either angry or disgusted.  You can imagine different kinds of immoral acts eliciting these different emotions in us.   For example, a thief might make us more angry than disgusted.  The study looked at how willing we are, when judging these people and their acts, to consider mitigating circumstances.

It turns out that when the immoral act makes us angry, we lose our ability to consider mitigating circumstances.  But disgust doesn’t.   There is something different in the brain circuitry between anger and disgust that influences the way it biases our judgment. 

I guess the takeaway here is that if you want to do something immoral and then make up an excuse for it, do something disgusting not angering.  And when you are judging someone else, be careful if you are angry, because there might be a legitimate mitigating factor that you are not considering.

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