Weight, Taste, and Politics: A Theory of Republican Over-Indulgence

So I was thinking about taste (flavor) and disgust (emotion.)

As I mentioned about a month ago, 25% of people are “supertasters,” that is, better at tasting than the other 75% of people. Supertasters experience flavors more intensely than ordinary tasters, resulting in a preference for “bland” food (food with too much flavor is “overwhelming” to them.) They also have a more difficult time getting used to new foods.

One of my work acquaintances of many years –we’ll call her Echo–is obese, constantly on a diet, and constantly eats sweets. She knows she should eat vegetables and tries to do so, but finds them bitter and unpleasant, and so the general outcome is as you expect: she doesn’t eat them.

Since I find most vegetables quite tasty, I find this attitude very strange–but I am willing to admit that I may be the one with unusual attitudes toward food.

Echo is also quite conservative.

This got me thinking about vegetarians vs. people who think vegetarians are crazy. Why (aside from novelty of the idea) should vegetarians be liberals? Why aren’t vegetarians just people who happen to really like vegetables?

What if there were something in preference for vegetables themselves that correlated with political ideology?

Certainly we can theorize that “supertaster” => “vegetables taste bitter” => “dislike of vegetables” => “thinks vegetarians are crazy.” (Some supertasters might think meat tastes bad, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t support this; see also Wikipedia, where supertasting is clearly associated with responses to plants:

Any evolutionary advantage to supertasting is unclear. In some environments, heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. In other environments, increased response to bitterness may have limited the range of palatable foods. …

Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:

Mushrooms? Echo was just complaining about mushrooms.

Let’s talk about disgust. Disgust is an important reaction to things that might infect or poison you, triggering reactions from scrunching up your face to vomiting (ie, expelling the poison.) We process disgust in our amygdalas, and some people appear to have bigger or smaller amygdalas than others, with the result that the folks with more amygdalas feel more disgust.

Humans also route a variety of social situations through their amygdalas, resulting in the feeling of “disgust” in response to things that are not rotten food, like other people’s sexual behaviors, criminals, or particularly unattractive people. People with larger amygdalas also tend to find more human behaviors disgusting, and this disgust correlates with social conservatism.

To what extent are “taste” and “disgust” independent of each other? I don’t know; perhaps they are intimately linked into a single feedback system, where disgust and taste sensitivity cause each other, or perhaps they are relatively independent, so that a few unlucky people are both super-sensitive to taste and easily disgusted.

People who find other people’s behavior disgusting and off-putting may also be people who find flavors overwhelming, prefer bland or sweet foods over bitter ones, think vegetables are icky, vegetarians are crazy, and struggle to stay on diets.

What’s that, you say, I’ve just constructed a just-so story?

Well, this is the part where I go looking for evidence. It turns out that obesity and political orientation do correlate:

Michael Shin and William McCarthy, researchers from UCLA, have found an association between counties with higher levels of support for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and higher levels of obesity in those counties.

Shin and McCarthy's map of obesity vs. political orientation
Shin and McCarthy’s map of obesity vs. political orientation

Looks like the Mormons and Southern blacks are outliers.

(I don’t really like maps like this for displaying data; I would much prefer a simple graph showing orientation on one axis and obesity on the other, with each county as a datapoint.)

(Unsurprisingly, the first 49 hits I got when searching for correlations between political orientation and obesity were almost all about what other people think of fat people, not what fat people think. This is probably because researchers tend to be skinny people who want to fight “fat phobia” but aren’t actually interested in the opinions of fat people.)

The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee
The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee–note that Phoenix is #7, not #1.

Disgust also correlates with political belief, but we already knew that.

A not entirely scientific survey also indicates that liberals seem to like vegetables better than conservatives:

  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to eat fresh fruit daily, and 17 percent more likely to eat toast or a bagel in the morning, while conservatives are 20 percent more likely to skip breakfast.
  • Ten percent of liberals surveyed indicated they are vegetarians, compared with 3 percent of conservatives.
  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to enjoy beer, with 60 percent of liberals indicating they like beer.

(See above where Wikipedia noted that supertasters dislike beer.) I will also note that coffee, which supertasters tend to dislike because it is too bitter, is very popular in the ultra-liberal cities of Portland and Seattle, whereas heavily sweetened iced tea is practically the official beverage of the South.

The only remaining question is if supertasters are conservative. That may take some research.

Update: I have not found, to my disappointment, a simple study that just looks at correlation between ideology and supertasting (or nontasting.) However, I have found a couple of useful items.

In Verbal priming and taste sensitivity make moral transgressions gross, Herz writes:

Standard tests of disgust sensitivity, a questionnaire developed for this research assessing different types of moral transgressions (nonvisceral, implied-visceral, visceral) with the terms “angry” and “grossed-out,” and a taste sensitivity test of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) were administered to 102 participants. [PROP is commonly used to test for “supertasters.”] Results confirmed past findings that the more sensitive to PROP a participant was the more disgusted they were by visceral, but not moral, disgust elicitors. Importantly, the findings newly revealed that taste sensitivity had no bearing on evaluations of moral transgressions, regardless of their visceral nature, when “angry” was the emotion primed. However, when “grossed-out” was primed for evaluating moral violations, the more intense PROP tasted to a participant the more “grossed-out” they were by all transgressions. Women were generally more disgust sensitive and morally condemning than men, … The present findings support the proposition that moral and visceral disgust do not share a common oral origin, but show that linguistic priming can transform a moral transgression into a viscerally repulsive event and that susceptibility to this priming varies as a function of an individual’s sensitivity to the origins of visceral disgust—bitter taste. [bold mine.]

In other words, supertasters are more easily disgusted, and with verbal priming will transfer that disgust to moral transgressions. (And easily disgusted people tend to be conservatives.)

The Effect of Calorie Information on Consumers’ Food Choice: Sources of Observed Gender Heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart, states:

While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such
as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed
(Keller et al. 2010).

(Always remember, of course, that a great many social-science studies ultimately do not replicate.)

I’ll let you know if I find anything else.


disgust vs. aggression vs. fertility (part 4 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 2, Is disgust Real? and Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust.)

So I made some graphs:

Log. graph of homicide rates vs. fertility rates
Log. graph of homicide rates vs. fertility rates
Graph of homicide rates vs fertility rates (data from the Wikipedia)
Graph of homicide rates vs fertility rates (data from the Wikipedia)

Take your pick. They’re the same graph, except the top graph has the homicide rate on a log scale and the bottom on a linear scale, because Honduras’s homicide rate is kind of off the charts.

I couldn’t fit all of the labels onto the graphs, but since most of the countries group by region, you can still figure out roughly where most of them go. The lower left hand corner, low fertility and low homicide, is filled with dots from East Asia and Western Europe. The central-middle-bottom section, of moderate birthrates and below-average homicide rates, has the Muslim countries. The far right–high fertility and medium violence–is mostly African. (Note that Angola and Gambia’s labels have been footnoted at the bottom of the graph.) And the upper left–high violence but moderate fertility–is Latin America. (The high homicide rates are one of the reasons I oppose unfettered Latin American immigration.)

While there is a positive relationship between violence and fertility, this is clearly not the whole story. Just eyeballing the log graph, it looks like a curved line would fit the data better than a straight line, but that’d require polynomial or quadratic regressions and we don’t really need to get into that much detail.

Rather, I suspect that just considering cleanliness explains the graphs: cleaner people are more easily disgusted by other people, and so have fewer children than their aggression levels would predict.

I haven’t found great data on overall “cleanliness” or “disgust rates,” but it appears that Latin Americans are some of the world’s cleanest people:

France, I am looking at you.
From the Atlantic, “How Often People in Various Countries Shower

Brazilians shower nearly 12 times a week, and Mexicans wash their hair more than anyone else.

By contrast, the French and Russians are positively disgusting. (I’m giving India and China a pass here due to limited running water in their countries.)

Here’s another graph, showing similar numbers:


My personal experience with East Asians (Japanese, Taiwanese, etc.,) also suggests that they are cleaner overall than Americans. These countries appear to have been hit with a double-whammy–very clean and low aggression–driving down the interest in sex so far that 60% of girls aged 16-19 claim to be uninterested in sex or even despise it, and even 40-50% of married people haven’t had sex in the past month. They’ve even got a phrase for it, “sex disgust syndrome.”

I don’t find Japanese fertility rates concerning, just because Japan really does need fewer people and the sex-inclined Japanese will quickly replace the non-sex inclined ones, so the issue will work itself out naturally. (And at any rate, I am not really in any position to go telling the Japanese what to do with their own society.)

In our own society, though, I am concerned that decreased monogamy (more “hooking up” via apps like Tinder and Grindr, etc.) is leading to more, not less female concern about male sexual aggression, with all sorts of unfortunate side effects.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 2, Is disgust Real? and Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust.)

Disgust part 3: Disney explains Disgust

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 2, Is disgust Real? and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

So today I was reading the picture book version of Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, which is about a little girl and anthropomorphized versions of her emotions, and happened upon this quote:

“And of course, Riley needed Disgust’s good taste to avoid being poisoned, both physically and socially. Disgust helped Riley steer clear of anything and everything she found repulsive, from horrible food to rotten people.” [bold mine]

The accompanying picture is of a toddler refusing some icky vegetable. One wonders what toddlers think about “rotten people,” if anything at all.

Grownups, however, express their opinions about the ickiness of others loud and clear:

David Merkur, 28, Keeps Seriously Creepy Spreadsheet Of All His Online Dates” claims the Huffington Post.

Poor David Merkur wrote no more in his spreadsheet than millions of women have written in their diaries–there is nothing remotely creepy about noting where you met someone or when you have a date scheduled. His only mistake was showing the spreadsheet to one of the women he was interested in. For this, Jezebel, the HuffPo, and many other websites ran articles which used his real name and intended, IMO, to completely humiliate and defame him.

Something similar happened to a friend when one of their exes decided to destroy them as publicly as possible. Thankfully their story didn’t make it onto Jezebel or HuffPo, but embarrassing personal details were broadcast to almost all of their friends, pretty much destroying their social life and leaving them really fucking depressed.

It is no secret that women are hostile to men they don’t like. Really hostile. I’ve spent enough time in the feminist trenches to know how these conversations tend to go:

“Why do women go after assholes? I’m such a nice guy and I can’t even get a date!”

“Any guy who calls himself a nice guy is actually an asshole! You’re a misogynist oppressor!”

Etc., etc.

The whole business has always been a little baroque to me, perhaps because I think people should be nice to each other, or perhaps because I’ve watched plenty of women fall all over themselves trying to hop into bed with criminals. But I find that one of the tricks to understanding people is to generally assume that they are asserting some true version of reality as they see it, so to understand feminists, I must assume that they really, truly hate Nice Guys.

But if we dig a little deeper, it’s not really the niceness they hate, (well, it is the niceness, but it is more than just that,) it’s the sexual interest.

Slate Star Codex made this montage that I have stolen without permission so I really hope he forgives me:

Some of those are anti-Semitic cartoons Scott stuck in there.
Some of those are anti-Semitic cartoons Scott stuck in there.

It’s from his article about Creep Shaming (my title, not his,) that is quite relevant to this whole post and I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already.

(While we are at it, 1. What is up with the fedora thing? Seriously I don’t get it. It is a hat. Who cares about hats? 2. How much social rejection/creep shaming is actually aimed at Jewish men who just don’t look like other whites and so don’t meet female attractiveness standards?)

Also, Scott Alexander is not the only person I’ve seen compare/imply that the whole feminist reaction to nerdy men reminds them of anti-Semitism.

Women complain about men’s unreasonable beauty standards, but it’s the women who rate 80% of men unattractive. Men, by contrast, rate most women as around “average” attractiveness.

As I noted a few days ago, this is all most likely because women have actually evolved to find male sexuality disgusting. A woman only needs 1-4 men in her life, not thousands, so any men other than her chosen few are little more than threats.

And apparently, people also route “potential threats” though their “disgust” modules, and some people are particularly prone to experiencing physical disgust at the mere thought of things they do not like.

Like inferior males and their sexuality.

Free Northerner has an older post about the time he tried to court a Christian young woman, and her parents (quite rudely) grilled him on a long list of personal questions. They obviously had it out for him, and so he should not have answered any of the questions or otherwise put up with their bullshit, but regardless, he probably sealed his fate with the woman by answering honestly that he sometimes watches porn.

You might as well talk about your feces at the dinner table as admit to a woman you barely know and her parents that you watch porn. Yes, everyone has to poop, but that doesn’t mean you talk about it in polite company. Likewise, yes, you have sexual needs, but that doesn’t mean you talk about them at the dinner, and any insistence that you should is just an insistence that the girl should only date men who are good at lying.

Be careful what you incentivise.


On a neurological level, I suspect that disgust and fear are closely related. Both get processed through the same region of the brain, my old favorite, the amygdala (but probably involve a bunch of other regions that I just don’t know anything about.) Both are negative reactions to external stimuli intended to protect you from danger. Fear protects you from things you might need to run away from, like tigers, while disgust protects you from stationary things, like rotting lions.

Conservatives show heightened fear/disgust responses upon meeting strangers, leading to distrust of outsiders, but the ability to feel fear also seems to help us empathize with others and feel their fear; sociopaths are deficient in their abilities to empathize and feel fear.

Disgust therefore has, apparently, two purposes:

1. It keeps you away from disease vectors like rot/feces

2. It prevents you from having sex with inferior mates.

One of the results implied by this is that cleaner people have less interest in sex, and dirtier people more interest. Which I suppose explains the phrase, “dirty old man.”

There is an additional important factor: aggression. Aggression, I suspect, neutralizes disgust. “Nice guys” lack the proper forms of aggression, like being tall and socially dominant, having a good sense of humor, good looks, prestigious job, and generally not being shy or otherwise beta. I am really super not the greatest person to get opinions about dating from, because I have never dated any women at all, but this appears, IMO, to be basically true: the aggressive bird gets the worm.

In the past, monogamy functioned, among other things, to basically protect women from too much male sexual interest, because married women were basically thought of as off-limits. This greatly reduced the number of men expressing sexual interest in married women, removing one source of potential stress from their lives.

When I hear women my own age talk about how, “We need to have a discussion about consent and aggression and rape,” I just look at them weird. After a decade of marriage, first-date style concerns about negotiating boundaries with people I’ve just met have faded far into the recesses of memory.

One of the side effects of decreasing monogamy in our society and an increase in “hookup” culture, seems to be an increase female concern about male sexual aggression. Overall, I suspect the numbers on aggressions like rape are down, (at least since 1990,) tracking other crime rates. But fear of male aggression need not have anything to do with actual aggression; it need only have to do with contact with males. If contact with men who want to have sex with them triggers womens’ disgust instincts, then putting women into more contact with men who want to have sex with them, even if those guys are totally nice guys who’d never do anything aggressive, will constantly trigger the disgust response and start stressing out the women. In the end, you get things like the whole Mattress Girl phenomenon.

“Sulkowicz, who graduated Sunday, spent her senior year hauling a 50-pound mattress around campus to protest the Columbia administration’s failure to expel her alleged rapist. …

““If we use proof in rape cases,” said Sulkowicz, “we fall into the patterns of rape deniers.” Yet it also trafficked in high-sounding maxims composed of that mélange of pseudo-academic, quasi-mystical jargon that passes today for profundity: “In saying I expose the truth, the viewer superimposes their truth upon mine, and once again silences me.” “Well-meaning people on the street will touch me reverently. . . . They do not believe they are violating me with their hands.” “When people engage in believing in me, they objectify me.” “

Read enough cases like these, and you start wondering if maybe there’s something to be said for social norms encouraging people to only have sex with people they already know really well, and maybe are already married to.

Instead, feminists tend to demand that men not express sexual desire in women, which of course only the really shy guys who are terrified of accidentally offending women and deeply committed to being decent humans in the first place actually listen to. They then sit in their rooms, alone, and feel absolutely awful for ever being attracted to a woman (objectification!) The assholes, of course, do not give a shit about any of this and continue being assholes.

As such, aggression appears to be an important factor in overcoming disgust and generally functioning in jobs and life. Shy, gentle people get shat upon in our society, while aggressive liars get jobs and women.


Of course, there are truly rotten people in this world, ones that kids (and adults) should watch out for. But the vast majority of “creeps” that women reject aren’t the truly rotten apples. They’re just guys with the misfortune to be not very attractive or socially dominant.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 2, Is disgust Real? and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

Is Disgust Real? (Part 2 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.

I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.

I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.

There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.

For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.

I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.

This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.

“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”

So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.

Which begs the question: Why?

Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.

By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.

It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

Yes, Women think male Sexuality is Disgusting (Part one of a series)

(See also: Part 2, Is Disgust Real?; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust, and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

And they ought to.

So, I’m going to let you in on a little not-so-secret: childbirth is horrendously painful. Don’t believe those bastards with their natural birth hoo-ha. There is nothing magical or wonderful about childbirth. You bleed copiously, you can barely walk for the next two weeks, and before modern medicine, you stood a good chance of dying in the process.

The US’s homicide rate is 4.7 deaths per 100,000 people per year. The UK’s is 1. Japan’s is 0.3. (Source.)

The “developed nations” have a maternal mortality rate of 16 women per 100,000 births. (Source.) (Note that one woman may give birth to more than one child in her lifetime.)

The “developing nations” have a maternal mortality rate of 230 per 100,000 births (and a much higher number of children per woman,) and some countries have maternal mortality rates around 1,000 per 100,000 births. If the average woman in these countries has 5-7 children, that works out to 5-7% of women dying in childbirth. (Though not every year.)

In other words, in the state of nature, childbirth is kind of like being stuck in the middle of WWII.


Let’s consider the male side of things. Given enough available females, a male could, hypothetically, sire one child every night for 30 years, resulting in 10,957 children, plus or minus a couple depending on the leap years. We’ll call 11,000 our “hypothetical male maximum.”

The man stands approximately zero chance of dying in the process of siring children, does not endure pregnancy or childbirth, and even if he depends on someone else to do all of the childcare for him, he still has a reasonable chance at his offspring making it to maturity. (After all, Genghis Khan didn’t get to be the most evolutionarily successful man in recent history by raising all of his bastards.)

In other words, for men, there is basically zero cost to impregnating a woman (other than, obviously, finding one.) Even under harsh economic/environmental conditions, every additional woman a man mates with is an additional chance at offspring. The only limiting factor is how many women he can convince to mate with him.

A woman, by contrast, can produce at max only about 20 children (9 months gestation + 6 months nursing / 25 years fertility). (State of nature does not have baby formula.) She needs a maximum of 20 mates, and can make do with <1 if she has to share.

Where the male number of potential offspring is practically limitless, by human standards, the female is decidedly limited. Which means that women must be picky. A male who has sex once with someone kind of meh is not seriously limiting his ability to have tons of awesome children. A woman who has sex with a guy who’s kind of meh is potentially wasting one of her very limited chances of having children on a loser.

Note: I am not claiming that 11,000 is a realistic number. Obviously even Genghis Khan himself probably didn’t have 11,000 children. The point is that male and female reproduction are vastly different, creating very different incentives.

The average male has approximately zero to lose and all the offspring to gain from a random fling, and thus is mentally ready to consider the majority of women as potential mates. If some of those women happen to not be particularly attractive, well, it’s no big loss.

Women, by contrast, endure high-risk pregnancies and births, for a very limited set of children. They therefore cannot risk having children with inferior males.

So it is in the male’s interest to mate with everyone in sight, but in a woman’s interests to eliminate the vast, vast majority of potential mates, winnowing her selection down to the best 1-4.

Which means that all other potential suitors, whether they’re 14 men in a small hunter-gatherer band or 4 million men in Tokyo, are sexually useless.

In fact, they’re less than useless: they’re a threat. Because it takes only one act of violence for one of those men to get another potential offspring, and for a woman to lose one of hers.

The difference between optimal male and optimal female strategies leads to conflict–not just between men and women, but also between men and men. If one man mates with 550 to 11,000 women, (11,000/20 children per woman = 550), that implies that 549 to 10,999 men are not mating with those women. And those men are going to be pretty pissed.

Monogamy is one of the more elegant solutions to this issue. The relative guarantee of one mate per person reduces conflict and increases parental investment in the children. But monogamy requires fidelity–reducing female interest in the sexual desires of the majority of men even further.

Disgust in the face of unnecessary male sexual attention helps keep women loyal to their husbands and protects their long-term evolutionary interests, even if people express it in really annoying ways.

(See also: Part 2, Is Disgust Real?; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust, and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

Studies: Disgust, Prisoner’s Dilemma

Disgust leads people to lie and cheat; cleanliness leads to ethical behavior


Prisoners better at Prisoner’s Dilemma than non-Prisoners


“… In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products such as antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched a disgusting toilet scene from the movie “Trainspotting.” Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. Mittal and colleagues found that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not.

“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.

“At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted,” Mittal said. “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.” ”



“for the simultaneous game, only 37% of students cooperate. Inmates cooperated 56% of the time.

On a pair basis, only 13% of student pairs managed to get the best mutual outcome and cooperate, whereas 30% of prisoners do.

In the sequential game, far more students (63%) cooperate, so the mutual cooperation rate skyrockets to 39%. For prisoners, it remains about the same.”

A several things may be going on:
1. Defecting on your fellow prisoners may have really negative consequences that college students don’t face.
2. Prisoners may identify strongly with each other as fellow prisoners.
3. Prisoners may be united by some form of hatred for the people keeping them in prison, leading them to cooperate with each other over outsiders even when they don’t like each other.
4. Prisoners may have been through enough bad crap already in their lives that the promise of a few cigarettes seems trivial and not worth defecting over.
5. Prisoners are drawn disproportionately from a population that happens to have strong norms or instincts about not defecting.
6. College students are jerks.