Incest, Theft, and Fraud, Or: How to Kill Your Appetite

It’s a Thursday night and you’re about to flop down on the couch for some much-needed TV time. Before settling in, you grab a quick bowl of ice cream. After enjoying the show for a little while, you realize that your once-frozen dessert has become a melted mixture. We’ve all been there: after watching a disturbing scene on television, suddenly that bowl of ice cream isn’t quite calling our name anymore. Was it seeing a romantic relationship bloom between father and daughter that grossed you out? How about witnessing a couple steal an innocent person’s life savings? Or was it watching a CEO get away with fraudulent practices that caused this visceral feeling of disgust?

Social Psychology scholars Cindy Chan, Leaf Van Boven, Eduardo B. Andrade, and Dan Ariely would say that all of the above scenarios might cause you to put your spoon down. In their report, “Moral violations reduce oral consumption,” the researchers explored this very connection between moral disgust and withdrawal from oral consumption behaviors. More specifically, in three different – but related – experiments they studied behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional responses to exposure of moral violations.

Chan, Van Boven, Andrade, and Ariely’s first study required participants in both the experimental and control conditions to watch a brief clip of an affectionate interaction between an older woman and a younger man. Given that the clip was in a foreign language, participants were either led to believe the relationship to be an incestuous one between mother and son (experimental condition) or a romantic one between an unrelated older woman and younger man (control condition). The researchers gave all participants chocolate milk to drink while watching the clip. Their second study focused on the moral violations of theft and cheating. Participants were separated into four conditions, two of which required them to write a brief story about a taboo activity (either cheating on an exam or stealing a car) and two of which were the control conditions (either writing with a pen on an exam and taking a road trip). Participants were given water to drink while writing their stories. The third and final study dealt with a different kind of moral transgression: fraudulent activities. In the experimental condition, participants listened to a radio story about a bank scandal in which interest rates were manipulated. Participants in the two control conditions either listened to classical music or a radio story about the same bank whose actions were presented as unintentional. All participants were given chocolate milk to drink while listening.

Ultimately, the researchers found evidence in support of their hypothesis that oral consumption is noticeably lower when exposed to a moral transgression. The trio of experiments showed strikingly similar results, demonstrating that the decrease in oral consumption was unconditional on the type of moral violation. Thus, regardless of the violation being incest, theft, or fraud, participants were less likely to indulge in their beverage compared to their control-condition counterparts. And, in case you were wondering, the difference between drinking chocolate milk or drinking water did not seem to influence results.

The fact that mere exposure to a moral violation has been shown to cause a change in behavior – a primal behavior at that – speaks to the sanctity of our social norms. In fact, previous studies confirm that feelings of disgust and feelings of gustatory discomfort often go hand-in-hand (Chan, 382). While I can accept this as a logical connection, I do have one wrinkle to add. While Chan, Van Boven, Andrade, and Ariely’s work is compelling, they kept the participants at bay through a third-person perspective. I wonder if the psychological distance was lessened to, perhaps, a first-person perspective that the degree of withdrawal from oral consumption may be different. After all, human behavior is often irrational and sometimes immoral. And while there may be exceptions, I would have a hard time believing that that mother-son couple hasn’t enjoyed a nice bowl of ice cream on date night.


Chan, C., Van Boven, L., Andrade, E. B., & Ariely, D. (2014). Moral violations reduce oral consumption. Journal Of Consumer Psychology. 24(3), 381-386. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.003

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