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The Moral Emotions: A Social-Functionalist Account of Anger, Disgust, and Contempt

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Recent research has highlighted the important role of emotion in moral judgment and decision making (Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Haidt, 2001). What is less clear is whether distinctions should be drawn among specific moral emotions. Although some have argued for differences among anger, disgust, and contempt (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999), others have suggested that these terms may describe a single undifferentiated emotional response to morally offensive behavior (Nabi, 2002). In this article, we take a social-functionalist perspective, which makes the prediction that these emotions should be differentiable both in antecedent appraisals and in consequent actions and judgments. Studies 1-3 tested and found support for our predictions concerning distinctions among antecedent appraisals, including (a) a more general role for disgust than has been previously been described, (b) an effect of self-relevance on anger but not other emotions, and (c) a role for contempt in judging incompetent actions. Studies 4 and 5 tested and found support for our specific predictions concerning functional outcomes, providing evidence that these emotions are associated with different consequences. Taken together, these studies support a social-functionalist account of anger, disgust, and contempt and lay the foundation for future research on the negative interpersonal emotions.
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The Moral Emotions: A Social–Functionalist Account of Anger,
Disgust, and Contempt
Cendri A. Hutcherson and James J. Gross
Stanford University
Recent research has highlighted the important role of emotion in moral judgment and decision making
(Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Haidt, 2001). What is less clear is whether
distinctions should be drawn among specific moral emotions. Although some have argued for differences
among anger, disgust, and contempt (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999), others have suggested that
these terms may describe a single undifferentiated emotional response to morally offensive behavior
(Nabi, 2002). In this article, we take a social–functionalist perspective, which makes the prediction that
these emotions should be differentiable both in antecedent appraisals and in consequent actions and
judgments. Studies 1–3 tested and found support for our predictions concerning distinctions among
antecedent appraisals, including (a) a more general role for disgust than has been previously been
described, (b) an effect of self-relevance on anger but not other emotions, and (c) a role for contempt in
judging incompetent actions. Studies 4 and 5 tested and found support for our specific predictions
concerning functional outcomes, providing evidence that these emotions are associated with different
consequences. Taken together, these studies support a social–functionalist account of anger, disgust, and
contempt and lay the foundation for future research on the negative interpersonal emotions.
Keywords: moral emotions, anger, disgust, contempt, sociofunctional
How distinct are “discrete” emotions? This question has been
one of the most hotly debated within emotion research (L. F.
Barrett, 2006; L. F. Barrett et al., 2007; Izard, 2007). Over the
decades, researchers have attempted to create a theoretical and
empirical framework describing when and why the different emo-
tion words we use should be considered to reflect true differences
in underlying psychological states. Yet despite an enormous cor-
pus of research, disagreements over the structure of emotional
space (e.g., dimensional vs. discrete models; Russell, 2003), as
well as over individual emotions, still abound. For the triad of
negative social emotions concerned with judging the actions and
dispositions of others (anger, disgust, and contempt; Haidt, 2003),
the proper division of space has seemed particularly elusive.
1
The link between these negative emotions and our responses to
socially relevant behavior is easy to detect. We might say that we
are angry at injustice, disgusted by a heinous murder, or contemp-
tuous of corrupt politicians. On a more mundane level, too, the
driver who fails to signal before swerving across lanes, the man-
ager who picks his nose, the inept store clerk who drops our
groceries—all can be targets of our anger, disgust, and contempt.
Yet even though we use different words to describe these reac-
tions, it is unclear whether they correspond to different underlying
psychological states with different consequences. More often than
not, these terms seem to bleed into one another (e.g., Marzillier &
Davey, 2004; Nabi, 2002; Simpson, Carter, Anthony, & Overton,
2006), raising this question: Are there meaningful differences
among the emotions described by these three terms, and if so, what
are they?
Defining the Space of Moral Emotions: An Outline of
Possible Models
Figure 1 presents a range of possible models depicting the
relationship among these three moral emotions, from least to most
differentiated. In the simplest model, anger, disgust, and contempt
1
In addition to the other-condemning emotions, Haidt (2003) also
described three additional families of sociomoral emotions, including the
other-praising emotions (gratitude, awe), which are in many ways the
functional opposites of the moral-condemning emotions; the other-
suffering emotions (such as sympathy or compassion), which are negative
feelings associated with another person’s pain or misfortune; and the
self-conscious emotions (such as shame, guilt, and pride), which fall within
the domain of the sociomoral emotions because they involve appraisals of
the self as a social or moral object. The extent to which each of these
families includes separate, distinct emotions also has yet to be completely
determined; this article focuses on the other-condemning emotions, al-
though the results presented here may have implications for understanding
emotions within the other families. For a fascinating discussion of the
separability of the negative self-conscious emotions, see Tangney, Wagner,
Hill-Barlow, Marschall, and Gramzow, 1996.
This article was published Online First January 31, 2011.
Cendri A. Hutcherson and James J. Gross, Department of Psychology,
Stanford University.
We thank Anne Cherniss, Ken Ferry, Rebecca Roediger, and Hants
Williams for assistance with data collection.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Cendri A.
Hutcherson, who is now at the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences,
California Institute of Technology, MC 228-77, Pasadena, CA 91125.
E-mail: chutcher@hss.caltech.edu
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology © 2011 American Psychological Association
2011, Vol. 100, No. 4, 719–737 0022-3514/11/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0022408
719
are semantic equivalents, synonyms for the same underlying neg-
ative emotional state evoked by interpersonal concerns (e.g., Nabi,
2002). In a partially differentiated model, two emotion families are
distinguishable, typically on the basis of the dimension of attack/
approach and avoid/withdraw: anger on the one hand and disgust/
contempt on the other. Models of this type have begun to appear
in the stereotyping and prejudice literature (e.g., Fiske, Cuddy,
Glick, & Xu, 2002; Mackie, Devos, & Smith, 2000). In a fully
differentiated model, the three emotions are distinct. One instan-
tiation of this model— described below—is the CAD triad model
(Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999), in which these three
different emotions result from a single appraisal (moral domain)
with three categories (autonomy, divinity, community). Each of
these models has received some empirical support, but it is not yet
clear how to reconcile conflicting findings.
Distinguishing the Triad: A Social–Functionalist
Account
Our perspective on this issue, favoring the fully differentiated
model, derives from a functionalist account of emotion, which
argues that emotions are adaptive solutions comprising a coordi-
nated set of appraisals, communicative gestures, physiological
responses, and action tendencies tailored to respond to crucial
problems faced by our species over the millennia (Cosmides &
Tooby, 2000; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). One may thus differen-
tiate emotion families by considering the extent to which they
serve different purposes (K. Barrett & Campos, 1987). Social
functionalism examines the adaptive role that emotions play in
relations between individuals, groups, and cultures (Ekman, 1992;
Keltner & Haidt, 1999; Keltner, Haidt, & Shiota, 2006). The
number of different social/moral emotions can be inferred by
identifying distinct dimensions of socially relevant actions for
which advantageous response requires different sets of changes in
behavior, cognition, and/or motivation. The question is, within the
interpersonal domain, how many unique situations, requiring
unique sets of responses, are there?
Anger, Appraisals of Self-Relevance, and Defensive
Attack/Approach Behavior
One of the most basic social challenges may involve the ability
to discern the ways in which another’s actions immediately impact
the self. When those actions lead to direct threat, vigorous defense
or attack can be the quickest way to resolve the danger, despite the
potential risks and energy expenditure. When the self is not di-
rectly involved, passive avoidance may be a less costly means to
reduce threat. To successfully navigate the social world, an indi-
vidual must be able to distinguish and respond appropriately to
those circumstances in which the threat posed by a social actor
merits more proactive, but potentially costly, strategies or more
passive, conservative tactics. In our view, anger serves this func-
tion.
Unlike other negative emotions, which typically prompt avoid-
ance behavior, anger tends to promote approach tendencies, in the
form of attack (Harmon-Jones & Allen, 1998; Roseman, Wiest, &
Swartz, 1994), although others have also noted an increase in
avoidance as well (Averill, 1982). Consequently, anger results in
higher energy expenditure, evidenced by greater autonomic
arousal and behavioral activation (Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen,
1990) and a greater willingness to take risks (Lerner & Keltner,
2001; Lerner & Tiedens, 2006). These higher cost behaviors may
be designed to prevent or terminate specific behaviors that are
perceived as immediate threats to the self, and anger may also
increase the willingness to incur costs in order to punish betrayal
(de Quervain et al., 2004; O’Gorman, Wilson, & Miller, 2005).
One implication of this view is that the morality per se of a social
behavior may be less important in determining an angry response
than the extent to which it impacts the self. Moreover, despite its
moral overtones, anger may be concerned less with how to respond
to people’s moral intentions and dispositions and more with how
best to actively respond to their behavior.
Moral Disgust, Contempt, and Appraisals of
Character: Morality Versus Competence
Although anger may fill the need to respond directly to imme-
diate social threats, there is a complementary need to respond
appropriately to individuals who are not currently engaged in
threatening behavior but whose past behavior suggests they should
be avoided, a less costly but more widely applicable response.
This, we argue, is the primary function of both moral disgust and
contempt: to mark individuals whose behavior suggests that they
represent a threat and avoid them, thereby reducing the risk of
exposure to harm.
Figure 1. Possible relations among anger, disgust, and contempt in the social domain. A: Equivalent model:
Moral judgment of others is represented by a single underlying emotional state. B: Partially distinct model:
Anger is distinct, but moral disgust and contempt are overlapping terms for a single underlying state. C: Fully
differentiated model: Social judgment is captured by three different, nonoverlapping emotions.
720 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
However, a simple mapping between approach–anger and with-
drawal– contempt/moral disgust may not be sufficient to encom-
pass the full range of socially relevant situations and requisite
adaptive responses. A rich body of research suggests that social
judgments are composed of two orthogonal dimensions. The first
dimension, referred to in different literatures as morality, warmth,
communion, or affiliation, describes the benevolence or malevo-
lence of an actor’s intentions. The second dimension, referred to as
competence, dominance, or agency, describes the abilities,skills,
and resources an actor has at his or her disposal to carry out those
intentions (Horowitz et al., 2006; Leary, 1957; Skowronski &
Carlston, 1987; Wojciszke, 2005). Approaching those with exper-
tise or knowledge and avoiding those who may be a burden
because they lack the ability to contribute to the social group also
has inherent adaptive value. In our view, the need to distinguish
threats posed by immorality or incompetence, respectively, may
correspond to the functions of moral disgust and contempt.
Haidt, Rozin, McCauley, and Imada (1997) treated moral dis-
gust as a socially elaborated version of nonsocial disgust (elicited
by death, decay, and disease). Nonsocial (“core”) disgust evokes a
deceleration in heart rate (Levenson et al., 1990), avoidance (Ola-
tunji & Sawchuk, 2005; Rozin & Fallon, 1987), and a facial
expression designed to limit contact with the environment (Rozin
& Fallon, 1987; Susskind et al., 2008). Disgust also results in a
lasting reluctance to come into contact with objects themselves
contaminated by contact with something disgusting. Although
similarities between nonsocial and social disgust have received
only indirect empirical support, such similarities could have func-
tional significance (Tybur, Lieberman, & Griskevicius, 2009).
Once marked as capable of malicious behavior, an individual
should be consistently avoided, regardless of whether he or she
subsequently performs a few benevolent actions (Martijn, Spears,
Vanderpligt, & Jakobs, 1992; Reeder & Coovert, 1986). Moral
disgust may serve this function.
Contempt, on the other hand, may be more strongly concerned
with appraisals of incompetence. Reliance on the help of an
incompetent individual risks wasting time or resources. Moreover,
seeking outside expertise and accepting the obligations entailed by
aid is useful only in situations where one does not oneself have the
resources to accomplish a task. Contempt may function to diminish
interaction with individuals who cannot contribute in a meaningful
way to the group, especially those individuals judged to be lower
or less capable than the self (Izard, 1977), yet who do not behave
in intentionally malicious ways.
As with anger, several predictions concerning the effects of
these emotions on judgment and decision making stem from the
view presented above. In particular, both moral disgust and con-
tempt may encourage a focus on a person’s intentions and dispo-
sitions, leading to more stable, longer lasting attributions concern-
ing a person’s character. In contrast, anger may be more likely to
dissipate once the immediate threat or injustice has been properly
punished or the appropriate restitution has been made (Ohbuchi,
Kameda, & Agarie, 1989).
Empirical Evidence: Differentiation and Overlap
The account we have outlined above suggests that anger, moral
disgust, and contempt should be differentiable on the basis of
appraisals that elicit one emotion more strongly than the others,
with corresponding differences in the behaviors consequent to
each emotion (see Figure 2A). Unfortunately, little empirical re-
search has directly tested distinctions between these emotions.
Evidence for Differentiation
The most comprehensive evidence for differentiation among the
three other-condemning emotions comes from work on the CAD
triad hypothesis (Haidt, 2003; Rozin et al., 1999). Informed by
cultural and anthropological discourse, and motivated as we are by
a social–functionalist perspective, Rozin et al. (1999) argued that
these emotions function specifically within the moral domain to
distinguish behaviors that violate three moral ethics (see Figure
2B). Humans feel contempt for violations of community (respect
for hierarchical and communal obligations of an individual to
society). They feel anger for violations of autonomy (disregard for
the personal rights or freedoms of the individual). Finally, they feel
disgust for violations of divinity (disrespecting the sacredness of
God or causing degradation or pollution to oneself or another). In
a series of studies, these researchers presented participants in both
Japan and the United States with actions representing one of the
three moral codes (examples of which can be seen in Table 1) and
asked them to select the most applicable facial expression and
verbal label from examples of disgust, contempt, and anger. Par-
ticipants linked the expression and label of contempt with com-
Figure 2. Two different fully differentiated models. A: The social–functionalist model. B: The CAD triad
model.
721
SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
munity violations, anger with autonomy violations, and disgust
with divinity violations.
Evidence for Overlap
Although the data for distinctions among anger, moral disgust,
and contempt are appealing, a growing body of empirical evidence
is at odds with this view. Whereas participants reported feeling
only disgust toward nonsocial disgust elicitors, they endorsed a
range of emotion terms, including disgust and anger, toward so-
ciomoral violations (Marzillier & Davey, 2004). Anger and moral
disgust are usually highly correlated (Simpson et al., 2006), per-
haps because people employ the terms “anger” and “disgust”
Table 1
Emotion Intensity Ratings in the Context of Community, Autonomy, and Divinity Violations (Study 1)
Item Code
Anger Moral disgust Contempt Sadness Fear Grossed out
M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD
A child hits another child A 2.46
a,b
1.79 2.29
b
1.90 1.79
c
1.79 2.78
a
1.94 1.65
c
1.80 0.73
d
1.33
Someone edges ahead in a very long
line A 3.38
a
1.58 2.79
b
1.68 2.96
b
1.69 0.86
c
1.29 0.71
c
1.26 0.62
c
1.31
A person is smoking in the
nonsmoking section of a small
waiting area A 3.65
a
1.79 3.18
b
1.79 3.28
b
1.83 1.21
d
1.60 0.99
d
1.44 2.65
c
2.20
Someone embezzles from a bank A 3.35
b
1.54 4.27
a
1.25 3.52
b
1.73 1.85
c
1.85 1.25
d
1.73 0.83
e
1.50
A person fakes an injury after an
automobile accident in order to
collect on insurance A 3.67
b
1.52 4.63
a
1.30 3.80
b
1.66 1.86
c
1.85 0.84
d
1.37 1.08
d
1.75
Someone is a member of the Ku Klux
Klan A 4.74
b
1.51 5.35
a
1.12 4.78
b
1.59 3.73
c
2.20 3.24
d
2.30 2.25
e
2.53
A man comes home drunk and beats
his wife A 5.22
b
1.23 5.41
a
0.95 4.94
c
1.61 4.88
c
1.51 3.29
d
2.34 2.43
e
2.46
A person puts cyanide in a yogurt
container at the supermarket A 5.04
b
1.46 5.50
a
1.00 4.71
c
1.84 3.34
d
2.33 4.46
c
1.96 3.17
d
2.53
A person steals a purse from a blind
person A 5.08
b
1.24 5.52
a
0.82 4.82
c
1.57 4.12
d
1.94 2.02
e
2.23 1.88
e
2.35
A cleaning person, who thinks no one
is watching, sits in the chair of the
company president C 0.47
b
1.01 0.48
b
0.97 0.57
b
1.14 1.05
a
1.57 0.54
b
1.21 0.23
c
0.69
A salesman addresses someone by
his/her first name after just meeting
him/her C 0.96
a
1.42 1.05
a
1.35 1.11
a
1.33 0.39
b
0.81 0.39
b
0.88 0.48
b
1.10
An oversensitive employee directly
criticizes his boss C 1.54
b
1.51 1.54
b
1.48 1.93
a
1.56 1.09
c
1.39 1.10
c
1.65 0.47
d
1.04
A teenager begins to eat dinner
before everyone else at the table is
served C 1.25
c
1.34
1.55
a,
b
1.47
1.37
b,
c
1.50 0.88
d
1.30 0.44
e
0.92 0.40
e
0.87
An 8-year-old student speaks to his
teacher in the same way as he talks
to his friends C 1.46
b
1.54 1.69
a
1.69 1.32
b
1.47 1.43
b
1.57 0.73
c
1.23 0.49
d
0.97
An employee unjustifiably complains
to his/her boss C 2.24
a
1.63 1.92
b
1.69 2.31
a
1.69 0.98
c
1.36 0.76
d
1.31 0.60
d
1.22
A person burns the American flag C 2.81
a
2.02 2.75
a
2.05 2.47
b
2.06 2.64
a,b
2.04 1.62
c
1.72 0.66
d
1.36
Someone who regularly leaves work
an hour early when no one is
around C 2.81
b
1.70 3.07
a
1.66
3.01
a,
b
1.77 0.95
c
1.31 0.46
d
0.95 0.62
d
1.18
A 10-year-old says dirty words to his
parents C
2.32
b,
c
1.86 3.16
a
1.87 2.11
c
1.82 2.54
b
1.93 1.01
d
1.50 0.75
e
1.26
Someone doesn’t go to his own
mother’s funeral C 2.83
c
2.11 3.71
b
2.03 2.88
c
2.11 4.66
a
1.64 0.97
d
1.59 0.94
d
1.68
A company executive refuses to sit
next to a laborer on a train C 4.27
b
1.51 4.58
a
1.47 4.16
b
1.66 3.48
c
1.83 0.91
e
1.40 1.53
d
2.07
A 16-year-old refuses to give up his/
her seat on the bus to a crippled
old lady C 4.25
b
1.50 4.90
a
1.18 4.02
b
1.74 3.41
c
1.88 0.90
e
1.37 1.24
d
2.02
A person has an incestuous
relationship D 2.79
c
2.06 4.77
a
1.54 3.07
b
2.21 2.71
c
2.26 1.48
d
1.86 4.82
a
1.71
A 70-year-old male has sex with a
17-year-old girl D 3.17
d
2.13 4.85
b
1.60 3.45
c
2.16 2.96
d
2.26 1.56
e
1.94 5.23
a
1.41
Note. Emotions within a row that share a superscript do not differ significantly at p.05 for that item. Significant differences were determined on the
basis of the results of paired ttests (N151). The highest emotion intensity rating for each item is shown in boldface. A autonomy violation; C
community violation; D divinity violation.
722 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
interchangeably. Although participants almost exclusively de-
scribe moral offenses when prompted with the word “angry” and
objects related to disease or decay for “grossed out,” the word
“disgusted” without further specification elicits descriptions of
both nonsocial and moral events (Nabi, 2002). Furthermore, when
these “disgusting” events are moral in nature, they evoke anger-
like action tendencies, such as the desire to lash out, to get back at
someone, and to overcome some obstacle. One implication of this
research is the importance of precise wording. Failure to specify to
a lay audience whether the term “disgust” refers to social or
nonsocial feelings may result in spurious conclusions. Similarly,
failure to measure anger casts some doubt on research that claims
to find specific forms of disgust related to social and nonsocial
violations (Tybur et al., 2009).
Contempt and disgust are even more often conflated with each
other in the literature (e.g., Harris & Fiske, 2006; Mackie et al.,
2000). In some cases, they seem to be used simply to describe
differing intensities of the same underlying negative social emo-
tional state, much as “happy” and “ecstatic” are used. Evidence
linking contempt to a unique facial expression, separate from
disgust and anger (e.g., Ekman & Friesen, 1986; Matsumoto &
Ekman, 2004), has been questioned on a number of counts. The
“contempt” expression, a unilateral lip curl, is frequently confused
with the expressions for disgust and anger (e.g., Shioiri, Someya,
Helmeste, & Tang, 1999), or, more disturbingly, given a label of
“neutral” by a ratio of nearly 2:1 when the option is available
(Wagner, 2000). It is worth noting that these same studies also
observed a fair degree of confusion between anger and disgust
expressions. For example, approximately 30% of participants la-
beled the prototypical anger expression as “disgust.” Similarly,
nearly 40% of participants labeled the disgust facial expression
with either “anger” or “contempt” (Shioiri et al., 1999).
Research on action tendencies also suggests less differentiation
between contempt and disgust. Expressions of either contempt or
disgust during episodes of marital conflict predict later marital
dissolution (Gottman, 1994). Experiences of contempt and disgust
also both predict tendency to withdraw from rather than confront
an antagonistic social group (Mackie et al., 2000), and both may be
associated with prejudice toward the most stigmatized, dehuman-
ized minorities, such as the homeless or drug addicts (Fiske et al.,
2002; Harris & Fiske, 2006; Hodson & Costello, 2007). The failure
to demonstrate either a unique facial expression or set of action
tendencies for contempt separate from disgust or anger (Roseman
et al., 1994) suggests that these terms may define a single under-
lying state.
The Present Research
It is not clear how to reconcile these conflicting findings. Why
do some studies find evidence for distinctions among the emotions
but others find little, if any? How do these observations fit with the
functionalist account outlined above? One way of posing these
questions is depicted in Figure 1, which suggests a continuum
anchored by two extreme viewpoints, the first that views anger,
moral disgust, and contempt as semantically equivalent terms for
a single underlying emotional state (e.g., moral indignation), and
the second that views these emotions as three completely separate,
independent states. Our goal was to determine where on this
continuum it makes sense to draw this line.
A comparison of the predictions of our social–functionalist
account, which argues that the functions of these emotions extend
beyond a strict concern with morality, to the more strictly moral–
functionalist CAD triad hypothesis is instructive (see Figure 2).
Both views are concerned with the adaptive functions served by
these three emotions but differ regarding each emotion’s function.
Both accounts link contempt to status and hierarchy, although we
argue that contempt may be associated with status through its
function in judging nonmoral, incompetent behavior. Similarly,
both theories implicate anger in response to threats against rights
and property, although our perspective makes the further specifi-
cation that the threat be directly and immediately relevant to the
individual. The two differ most markedly with respect to their
treatment of disgust. Whereas the CAD triad hypothesis links
disgust specifically to offenses against the sacred and the pure, we
attribute a more general role to moral disgust. Immoral behavior,
no matter whether it involves offenses against autonomy, commu-
nal obligations, bodily purity, or even other ethics (Graham, Haidt,
& Nosek, 2009), warrants avoidance. Two actions that indicate a
similar level of immoral or socially exploitative behavior should
elicit the same amount of moral disgust, regardless of whether they
represent different kinds of ethical violations, and two actions that
differ in their implications for moral character should elicit differ-
ent levels of moral disgust, even if they represent the same moral
ethic. This distinction between our account and the CAD triad
account in part parallels the distinction between the functions of
nonsocial and moral disgust. Many exemplars of divinity viola-
tions used by Rozin et al. (1999; such as “biting into an apple with
a worm in it” or “eating rotten meat”) appear to more strongly tap
nonsocial disgust.
Study 1: The Role of Moral Disgust in Moral
Violations
Because a “lumper’s” perspective (Panel A in Figure 1), our
extended social–functionalist account, and a different, primarily
moral–functionalist account (the CAD triad) all make competing
predictions regarding disgust, we begin with this emotion. Using
questionnaire-based methods, our goal in this study was to address
whether there is a specifically moral version of disgust, responsive
to purely social offenses and differentiable from feeling “grossed
out” (Nabi, 2002). On the basis of our social–functionalist per-
spective, we hypothesized that when the distinction between social
and nonsocial disgust was made clearer to participants, moral
disgust would be associated with all forms of moral offenses.
Method
Participants. One hundred and fifty-one students (mean
age 18.8 years, range 17–25; 62% female and 38% male; 58%
Caucasian, 22% Asian or Asian American, 6% Hispanic or Latino,
3% Black, 11% other or declined to answer) enrolled in an intro-
ductory psychology class participated in exchange for course
credit.
Materials and procedure. In large groups, participants com-
pleted a questionnaire consisting of a subset of the moral violations
used in Rozin et al. (1999). These included all 12 actions catego-
rized as community violations (Items 4, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 19, 27,
28, 33, 34, and 38 from Rozin et al., 1999), all nine actions
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SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
categorized as autonomy violations (Items 12, 16, 25, 35, 36, 40,
41, 43, and 44), and two actions categorized as divinity violations
(Items 3 and 22). Because we were concerned primarily with moral
behavior, we selected the only two divinity violations that repre-
sented obviously intentional sociomoral violations. The three items
not selected included (a) a person biting into an apple with a worm
in it, (b) a person eating rotten meat, and (c) a person touching a
corpse. These were deemed to be less clearly moral in nature and
ambiguous with respect to moral intention.
All items were worded to describe a person committing a
particular offense (e.g., “Someone embezzles from a bank”). In-
structions for the questionnaire were as follows:
Often, when we learn about an immoral event (something bad, wrong,
or evil) we experience strong feelings. We might feel a range of
emotions, including anger/rage, moral disgust/revulsion, contempt, or
other emotions. We are interested in the reactions you might have to
the following situations. There are no right or wrong answers. Please
just indicate how you would feel in each situation.
For each situation described below, indicate how much of each of the
emotions listed you feel at the actions/events described, on a scale
from 0 (not at all) to 6 (extremely). Please also circle the space of the
emotion that best describes your overall reaction to the behavior.
We assessed responses using six different emotion terms (anger,
contempt, moral disgust, sadness, fear/anxiety, and grossed out).
Of these, anger and contempt are identical to the terms used in
Rozin et al. (1999). Disgust, for reasons mentioned above, was
broken into two terms, moral disgust and grossed out, to better
capture the distinction between social disgust and nonsocial dis-
gust, respectively. Finally, we included the terms sadness and
fear/anxiety to assess the specificity of the emotional response to
moral violations.
Before the target questions, participants were provided with an
example, illustrating both the emotional intensity ratings and the
best descriptive rating. Text of the example read “****Exam-
ple**** A man is caught selling drugs to minors. ****Exam-
ple****” and was followed by numbers under the column for each
emotion, to indicate possible responses. The numbers for anger
and moral disgust were the highest of the six emotions and equal
to each other. A circle around the number in the moral disgust
column indicated to participants both how to indicate the best
descriptive emotion and that they should circle a single emotion as
best descriptive even in cases of a tie in intensity.
Results
For each item, we conducted paired ttests on emotional inten-
sity ratings for all 15 combinations of emotion pairs, reporting
significant differences below a threshold of p.003, the
Bonferroni-corrected alpha level for 15 comparisons (.05/15). As a
secondary analysis, we analyzed the frequency with which each
emotion was selected as the best descriptive term, using an ap-
proach similar to that employed by Rozin et al. (1999). Although
there was a main effect of gender on emotion intensity, indicating
that women (M2.92, SD 1.03) responded more strongly than
men (M2.58, SD 1.23), F(1, 127) 5.53, p.02,
p
2
.04,
there were no interactions between gender and the main effects of
interest. We therefore report the results below collapsing across
gender. Results are presented by moral code. Each action and the
corresponding emotion intensities appear in Table 1.
Across the community violations (n12), moral disgust re-
ceived higher intensity ratings than any other emotion (M2.52,
SD 1.02), all ts(150) 3.96, all ps.001, all ds0.26.
Participants reported greater levels of moral disgust than anger
(M2.26, SD 1.02), contempt (M2.24, SD 1.07), sadness
(M1.96, SD 0.96), fear (M0.82, SD 0.89), or grossed
out (M0.70, SD 0.90). Frequency analysis of the best
descriptive term painted a similar picture. Averaging over all of the
community violations, moral disgust was chosen as the best de-
scriptive term (M31%), followed by contempt (M23%),
sadness (M22%), anger (M17%), fear (M6%), and
grossed out (M2%).
Across the autonomy violations (n9), moral disgust (M
4.33, SD 0.82) was rated significantly higher than any other
emotion, all ts(148) 4.98, all ps.001, all ds0.29, including
anger (M4.07, SD 0.97), contempt (M3.74, SD 1.24),
sadness (M2.74, SD 1.29), fear (M2.05, SD 1.29), and
grossed out (M1.74, SD 1.52). Averaging over all of the
autonomy violations, moral disgust was chosen as the best descrip-
tive term (M42%), followed by anger (M22%), contempt
(M17%), sadness (M9%), fear (M7%), and grossed out
(M3%).
Across the divinity violations, grossed out was rated highest
(M5.03, SD 1.39) but was not significantly different from
moral disgust (M4.81, SD 4.8), t(146) 2.04, p.60,
corrected for multiple comparisons. Both emotions were rated
significantly higher than any other emotion, all ts(146) 10.15, all
ps.001, all ds0.9, including contempt (M3.26, SD
1.98), anger (M2.96, SD 1.89), sadness (M2.84, SD
1.98), and fear (M1.52, SD 1.67). Averaging over both of the
divinity violations, grossed out was chosen 58% of the time,
followed by moral disgust (M31%), contempt (M5%),
sadness (M4%), fear (M3%), and anger (M2%).
Discussion
Contrary to the CAD triad model (in which moral disgust
responds specifically to violations involving sanctity and purity),
our account suggests that moral disgust should be an adaptive
response to moral violations more generally. The results of Study
1 supported this hypothesis. When “moral disgust” was linguisti-
cally differentiated from “grossed out,” it emerged strongly in both
autonomy and community violations and rivaled grossed out in the
divinity violations. This relationship held whether we measured
emotion using a single rating of the “best descriptive” emotion (as
Rozin et al., 1999, did) or using a more detailed rating of the
intensities of a range of emotions. Both methods also distinguished
moral disgust from nonsocial disgust. Although moral disgust was
uniformly high across all three codes, the term “grossed out” was
endorsed strongly only in divinity violations.
The finding that disgust was best descriptive of all three types of
moral violations is consistent with our view. However, the pattern
across the second-most intense emotions followed the predictions
made by the CAD triad hypothesis (Rozin et al., 1999), identifying
contempt, anger, and moral disgust in community, autonomy, and
divinity violations, respectively. Moreover, although the data do
suggest that moral disgust and grossed out are different emotional
724 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
entities, they do not yet rule out an account in which moral disgust
is simply used to express the sum of other negative emotions,
including anger and contempt. Studies 2 and 3 identified specific
appraisals that differentiate anger, disgust, and contempt.
Study 2: Differentiating Anger and Moral Disgust
As outlined above, we hypothesized that in cases in which one
is directly endangered by an immoral act, a more proactive re-
sponse than disgust, such as anger, may be warranted. In cases
where one is not directly harmed by immoral behavior, the low-
cost avoidance associated with disgust may be more adaptive.
Alternatively, if anger responds merely to whether an action is a
violation of the ethic of autonomy, it may depend less on who the
victim is and only on the nature of the crime. Recent evidence
showing that participants report greater anger when a moral of-
fense is self-relevant than when it is not (Batson, Chao, & Givens,
2009; Batson et al., 2007) is consistent with this hypothesis.
However, other moral emotions, such as disgust and contempt,
were not assessed in these studies. It therefore remains possible
that, contrary to our predictions, self-relevance is not an appraisal
unique to anger but is rather a general intensifier of morally
relevant emotions. In order to test these possibilities, we presented
vignettes of moral violations, systematically varying the degree of
self-relevance of the immoral act, and assessed response across
several different emotions.
Method
Participants. One hundred and thirty-one students (age range
17–31 years; 63% female and 37% male; 51% Caucasian, 25%
Asian or Asian American, 9% Black, 6% Hispanic or Latino, 9%
other) enrolled in an introductory psychology class at Stanford
University completed one of three alternate versions of the ques-
tionnaire. Forty-five students completed Version 1, 45 completed
Version 2, and 41 completed Version 3.
Materials and procedure. Nine new moral violations were
created for the questionnaire used in Study 2 (see Appendix A for
a full list of items). Of these, three control violations appeared in
consistent position and wording (always presenting the victim as a
generic other) in each questionnaire, to ensure that when violations
were equivalently presented, the three groups did not differ. The
other six violations varied in the degree of self-relevance across
the three versions of the questionnaire. In Version 1, violations
were worded such that the participant was presented as the victim;
in Version 2, the victim was a friend of the participant; and in
Version 3, the victim was a generic other. For example, in the item
“A student steals your exam and copies it” (emphasis added), the
italicized word would be replaced either with “your friend” or “a
student” in the two alternate versions. As in Study 1, participants
indicated the intensity of six different emotions (anger, moral
disgust, contempt, sadness, fear/anxiety, and grossed out). They
also circled the emotion term best descriptive of their overall
experience.
Results
In order to determine whether there was a difference between
the control (identical perspective) and test (varied perspective)
items, an average was created across the three control questions
and across the six test questions for each emotion for each partic-
ipant. We hypothesized that this average would reveal higher
experiences of anger when the self was implicated than when
unrelated individuals were harmed by an immoral offense. On the
other hand, moral disgust, responding to the perpetrator’s moral
character, should remain relatively constant across the three per-
spectives.
As in Study 1, we observed a significantly stronger emotional
response in women (M2.73, SD 0.72) than in men (M2.36,
SD 0.67), F(1, 112) 7.66, p.007,
p
2
.06; however,
gender did not interact with any of the effects reported below and
was thus dropped as a factor. A 3 2 repeated-measures analysis
of variance (ANOVA) was conducted, with version (self, friend,
other) as a between-subjects factor and question type (control vs.
test) as a repeated, within-subject measure. For all emotions except
fear, there were significant effects of question type: The control
violations were consistently rated as slightly more intense, all
Fs(1, 128) 9.61, all ps.002, all
p
2
s.07. These effects were
qualified by a significant interaction between version and question
type for anger, contempt, sadness, and fear, all Fs(2, 128) 4.87,
all ps.01, all
p
2
s.07, as well as a marginally significant
interaction for moral disgust, F(2, 128) 2.5, p.09,
p
2
.04.
Follow-up between-groups ttests indicated that, for control
questions, there was no significant effect of version for any emo-
tion. Even though these items were regarded as more negative,
they were responded to in an equivalent manner across all groups.
However, as predicted, items in which the self-relevance of the
victim was manipulated showed strikingly different emotional
profiles across versions. There was a significant linear effect of
version for anger, t(128) 4.12, p.001, d0.86, and for fear,
t(128) 3.98, p.001, d0.85. For moral disgust, this effect
was not significant, t(128) 1.45, p.15. Although fear was
considerably lower overall than anger, both were highest in the self
condition (M
Anger
4.24, SD 0.93; M
Fear
1.43, SD 0.98),
lower in the friend condition (M
Anger
3.62, SD 0.88; M
Fear
0.71, SD 0.72), and lowest in the other condition (M
Anger
3.41, SD 1.01; M
Fear
0.62, SD 0.76). Moral disgust showed
the opposite pattern, being higher in the other condition (M3.71,
SD 1.05) than in the self condition (M3.38, SD 0.96).
Contempt and sadness did not show a clear pattern, both being
lower in the friend condition than in either of the other conditions.
None of the emotions showed a main effect for version, suggesting
that the groups did not differ in a general way in their emotional
responding.
Analysis of the frequency with which each emotion label was
selected as best descriptive revealed a similar pattern of findings.
In control (identical perspective) items, moral disgust was selected
as the best descriptive term in a similar manner across all three
groups. For the test (perspective varied) items, the percentage of
people selecting “anger” as the best descriptive term was highest in
the self condition (42%), intermediate in the friend condition
(40%), and lowest in the other condition (27%). Moral disgust
showed the opposite pattern of results. The percentage of partici-
pants selecting this emotion as best descriptive was lowest in the
self condition (20%), intermediate (but lower than anger) in the
friend condition (27%), and highest in the other condition (34%;
see Figure 3). All other emotions were selected by an equivalent
percentage of participants across the three groups.
725
SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
Discussion
The results of Study 2 strongly confirmed the predicted pattern
of results. Even though the types of moral violations were held
constant across all three versions of the questionnaire, varying the
recipient of harm had a substantial effect on the emotions felt.
Consistent with the prediction that anger and its associated action
tendencies might be most adaptive when the harm directly impli-
cates the self, anger was highest for the self condition, lower in the
friend condition, and lowest in the other condition. Additionally, as
endorsement of anger decreased across the three conditions, en-
dorsement frequency of moral disgust increased. In the intensity
results, moral disgust remained roughly constant across the three
conditions, trending up slightly. This pattern is consistent with
moral disgust being concerned with the intentions or maliciousness
of the perpetrator, whereas anger is concerned with attack against
direct threat. It clearly differentiates anger from moral disgust and
demonstrates that people use these terms in different ways, con-
trary to the conclusions drawn by some researchers (Nabi, 2002;
Simpson et al., 2006).
However, this study does not clearly allow us to differentiate
moral disgust and contempt. Endorsement of each emotion as best
descriptive revealed a different trend in moral disgust and con-
tempt across the three versions of the questionnaire. Intensity data
show that moral disgust and contempt were both relatively flat
across conditions, although moral disgust was consistently higher
than contempt. These data are thus consistent with a model in
which contempt is simply a weaker version of disgust, consistent
with some models presented in the prejudice literature, which often
lump together contempt and disgust (e.g., Fiske et al., 2002;
Mackie et al., 2000).
Study 3: Differentiating Contempt and Moral Disgust
Although contempt and moral disgust have often proven diffi-
cult to separate, our extended social–functionalist perspective sug-
gests a possible distinction between them. Whereas disgust may
concern the likelihood that an individual harbors benevolent or
malicious intentions, contempt may concern an individual’s com-
petence to achieve their aims. We thus predicted that actions that
signal immorality would be associated with a greater balance of
moral disgust relative to contempt, whereas actions that signal
incompetence would be associated with a greater balance of con-
tempt relative to moral disgust. Such a pattern would clearly show
that moral disgust and contempt are not simply terms associated
with different levels of the same emotion but respond to different
socially relevant signals. If, on the other hand, moral disgust and
contempt are only synonyms for a general motivation to withdraw
from morally offensive individuals, there should be no situations in
which the emotions differ.
Method
Participants. One hundred and six undergraduate students
(age range 17–29 years; 71% female and 29% male; 43% Cauca-
sian, 24% Asian or Asian American, 9% Black, 9% Hispanic or
Latino, 15% other or declined to answer) enrolled in an introduc-
tory psychology class at Stanford University completed one of two
questionnaires (Version 1, n56; Version 2, n50).
Materials and procedure. The questionnaires used were
identical in format to those used in Studies 1 and 2. To assess
responses to moral violations, we included several items used by
Rozin et al. (1999) that were representative of the ethic of com-
munity (e.g., “A teenager begins to eat dinner at the table before
everyone else is served”). In order to assess whether contempt and
Figure 3. Selection of the best descriptive emotion in items with varied and common perspective (Study 2).
Changes in endorsement of anger, contempt, and moral disgust are shown across three groups of participants
given moral violations that were similar except for the nature of the victim (left panel) or that were identical
(right panel).
726 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
moral disgust could be differentiated by focusing on incompe-
tence, we created several examples of incompetent behaviors (e.g.,
“A person who tries to use large words to sound smart, but
mispronounces them”). Finally, in order to assess replicability of
findings, we created two versions of the questionnaire, each con-
sisting of several community violations and competence failures.
There was no overlap of items between the two questionnaires (see
Appendix B for a full list of items). Participants were given
identical instructions to those used in Studies 1 and 2 and were
provided with an identical example. Responses were assessed
using seven different emotion terms (anger, contempt, moral dis-
gust, sadness, pity, grossed out, and amusement).
Results
Separate averages across the morality and competence items
were created for each questionnaire version, for each emotion, and
for each participant. In initial analyses, questionnaire version and
gender were included as factors. There were no effects involving
version, so results were collapsed across the two versions. Al-
though there was only a marginally significant main effect of
gender on overall intensity of response, F(1, 90) 2.9, p.09,
p
2
.03, there was a significant interaction between sex of
respondent and action type in the overall intensity of emotional
response, F(1, 90) 4.48, p.04,
p
2
.05. Post hoc analyses
indicated that although moral violations elicited greater emotion
than competence violations for both men (M
Moral
1.58, SD
0.82; M
Competence
1.37, SD 0.66), t(27) 2.18, p.04, d
0.28, and women (M
Moral
1.97, SD 0.64; M
Competence
1.52,
SD 0.75), t(64) 6.98, p.001, d0.65, this difference was
stronger in women, t(91) 2.16, p.03, d0.49. However,
type of emotion did not interact with this effect, and gender was
thus dropped as a factor in analyses reported here. Using the
emotion intensity averages, we conducted a 2 (action type) 7
(emotion type) repeated-measures ANOVA. The main effects of
action and emotion type were significant, as was their interaction
(all Fs53.47, all ps.001, all
p
2
s.353). Follow-up
paired-sample ttests, Bonferroni corrected for multiple compari-
sons, indicated that, in both studies, with the exception of pity,
grossed out, and amusement, moral violations elicited more in-
tense emotion than did competence violations, all ts(99) 7.33, all
ps.001, all ds0.78. Pity and amusement were consistently
rated higher in failures of competence than in violations of mo-
rality, both ts(99) 6.9, ps.001, ds0.74, and there was no
significant difference for the term “grossed out” (see Table 2 for
means and standard deviations).
Analysis of the three emotions concerned with negative social
judgment indicated that moral disgust was significantly higher
than any other emotion in the community violations, all ts(100)
5.9, all ps.001, all ds0.35, followed by anger and then
contempt. In contrast, participants reported a greater amount of
contempt than moral disgust toward incompetent acts, t(102)
6.47, p.001, d0.62 (see Figure 4). Moreover, community
violations elicited marginally significantly higher amounts of an-
ger than contempt, t(105) 2.4, p.02 uncorrected, d0.19,
whereas incompetent behaviors elicited marginally higher amounts
of contempt than anger, t(105) 2.5, p.01 uncorrected, d
0.24.
Analysis of percentages of participants selecting particular emo-
tions as best descriptive of their overall experience confirmed the
results of the emotion intensity ratings (see Table 3). For violations
of community, the term “moral disgust” was selected most fre-
quently (39%). In comparison, contempt was selected relatively
less frequently (9%) and, in both cases, was selected less often
than anger. In contrast, incompetent actions were associated pri-
marily with amusement and pity, whereas a direct comparison of
anger, moral disgust, and contempt revealed that, of these three,
contempt was selected more often than either of the other two
emotions (contempt 12%, anger 8%, moral disgust 1%).
Discussion
The primary goal of Study 3 was to test whether specific
appraisals distinguished moral disgust from contempt. We hypoth-
esized that two dimensions relevant to the other-judgmental emo-
tions of moral disgust and contempt might be morality and com-
petence, respectively. Results were consistent with this hypothesis.
Restricting the focus to the three moral judgmental emotions alone,
moral disgust was clearly the emotion most strongly felt in re-
sponse to violations of the ethic of community, assessed either
with intensity reports or by selection of the best descriptive term,
as in Study 1. By contrast, for incompetent actions, contempt was
rated most highly, measured either using intensity or the best
descriptive term.
At the same time, however, several other patterns in the data are
worth noting. First, other emotions, such as pity and amusement,
emerged as more highly activated in incompetent acts than any of
the three sociomoral emotions, including contempt. Second, al-
though comparing the balance of emotions within either commu-
nity violations or incompetent acts leads to a conclusion that
disgust is associated with immorality, and contempt with incom-
petence, comparing between these two classes of actions paints a
Table 2
Emotion Intensity Ratings of Community Violations and Incompetent Actions (Study 3)
Action type
Anger Moral disgust Contempt Sadness Pity Grossed out Amused
M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD
Community violation 2.70
b
1.23 3.11
a
1.11 2.46
b
1.24 1.74
c
0.94 1.36
d
0.96 0.58
e
0.83 0.86
e
0.76
Incompetent action 1.18
c,d
0.98 0.76
d
0.90 1.45
c
1.31 1.02
d
0.98 2.18
b
1.24 0.41
e
0.76 2.98
a
1.09
Note. Emotions within a row that share a superscript do not differ significantly at p.05 for that type. Significant differences were determined on the
basis of the results of paired ttests (N106).
727
SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
slightly different picture. Both emotions are higher in immoral
than incompetent actions.
We believe that these findings are also consistent with our
social–functionalist approach. First, our account does not prohibit
the coactivation of emotions. To the extent that pity or amusement
shares an appraisal with contempt, one might indeed expect them
to co-occur. Second, it is also important to note that competence
may refer not just to cognitive domains but also to social ones.
Knowing how to respond to another person at the appropriate time,
or in the appropriate manner— how to entertain, appease, flatter, or
critique for maximum social benefit—may be just as important a
skill as knowing how to solve difficult mathematical problems.
Indeed, given evidence that people weight social information more
highly than competence information in evaluating people (Woj-
ciszke, 2005), it may be less surprising to find that contempt is
higher in community violations, which may demonstrate as much
a lack of knowledge or facility with social conventions as a
malevolent intention.
2
Study 4: Perceived Consequences Associated With the
Moral Emotions
In Studies 1–3, we focused on antecedent appraisals distinguish-
ing anger, disgust, and contempt; however, our extended social–
functionalist account also makes specific predictions about the
likely consequences of these emotions. If people have observed
each of these emotions to have different social consequences, they
should distinguish among them and have clear preferences regard-
ing being the target of one versus another of these emotions.
In Study 4, we tested this prediction by examining beliefs about
consequences for someone evoking these three emotions. Moral
disgust, to the extent that its properties are similar in consequence
to nonsocial disgust, may be associated with a long-lasting judg-
ment of the inherent moral worth of a target that is difficult to
undo, and avoidance or ostracism and a loss of regard may result
from a person being labeled morally disgusting. Given evidence
that social rejection can be extremely painful (Eisenberger, Lieber-
man, & Williams, 2003), disgust may in some sense be the worst
emotion one could inspire in others. Contempt, as another emotion
concerned with judgments about a person’s character, may also be
undesirable, but perhaps less severe because it is associated with
incompetence, a category weighted less heavily in overall impres-
sions (Wojciszke, 2005). Finally, although its aggressive action
tendencies would seem to make it the most dangerous emotion,
anger might actually be the least negative, because it may be
focused on temporary behavior rather than lasting judgments.
Note that these predictions differ from the predictions of either
the CAD triad view or the undifferentiated view. The CAD triad
view argues that different individuals and cultures may emphasize
different ethics over others. In modern Western cultures, divinity
and community ethics tend to be emphasized less in morality, and
autonomy tends to be emphasized more (Haidt, Koller, & Dias,
1993; Rozin et al., 1999). Thus, a prediction of the CAD triad
hypothesis might be that, at least in Western cultures where au-
tonomy is prioritized, anger should be the worst emotion, whereas
contempt and disgust might be comparatively less bad. Alterna-
tively, the CAD triad might predict that, given that all three
emotions are about morality (albeit different kinds), there should
be no differences between them. The semantic equivalents view
likewise predicts no difference in the desirability of these emo-
tions. To determine which account best fits the pattern of perceived
consequences, we asked participants to make judgments about
which emotion they would least like to inspire and to justify their
response.
Method
Participants. Forty-six participants (age range 18 –23 years;
70% female and 30% male; 41% Caucasian, 31% Asian or Asian
American, 4% Black, 15% Hispanic or Latino, 9% other) were
2
This distinction may also help to place the association between com-
munity violations and contempt in both Rozin et al.’s (1999) work and in
our Study 1 (secondary to moral disgust) in the proper light. Community
violations may be seen less as signs of immorality and more as signs of
social incompetence. Indeed, we have shown that the community violations
that were more strongly associated with moral disgust in Study 1 are also
judged as being more strongly indicative of immorality than incompetence,
whereas the community violations associated with contempt in Study 1 are
perceived as more indicative of stupidity or a lack of competence than of
immorality (Hutcherson, 2007).
Figure 4. Intensity of emotions in items representing community violations and incompetent actions (Study 3).
Self-reported intensities of anger, moral disgust, and contempt are shown in the context of violations of the ethic
of community (left panel) or of failures of competence (right panel). Error bars represent the standard error of
the mean.
728 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
recruited from the Stanford University campus and surrounding
community.
Materials and procedure. Participants were given informed
consent, filled out a short demographic questionnaire, and then
completed a series of questionnaires presented on a computer, in
which participants’ preferences about being the target of several
different negative emotions, including moral disgust, anger, con-
tempt, grossed out, fear, and sadness, were assessed. Participants
made a series of choices comparing these negative emotions pair-
wise and indicated for each pair which emotion they would rather
someone to feel toward them (e.g., “Would you rather someone be
morally disgusted with you or angry with you?”). Participants
made choices for six pairs: moral disgust versus anger, moral
disgust versus sadness, moral disgust versus contempt, moral
disgust versus grossed out, contempt versus anger, and sadness
versus anger. After making their choice, they were asked to ex-
plain why they chose their answer. These answers, with all refer-
ences to emotion words blanked out, were coded by two indepen-
dent raters, blind to participants’ choices, for their references to
certain categories of response. The following nine themes (and
sample illustrative responses) were used to code participants’
justifications: whether an emotion (a) was temporary or could be
fixed (e.g., “People get over anger easier. Time usually takes care
of it.”); (b) was indicative of one’s moral sense or character (e.g.,
“Anger is less deep than disgust— disgust would mean they were
upset with my ideals and my personality”); (c) was responding to
a single, relatively localized action (e.g., “Anger usually involves
a single action. For example, I am angry at you for breaking my
iPod.”); (d) could be a result of a misunderstanding or idiosyn-
cratic response (e.g., “Many times anger is unjustified and easily
solved”); (e) would make the participant feel bad about him- or
herself (e.g., “Having someone grossed out would be embarrassing
toward myself”); (f) would make the participant feel sympathy for
the pain of another person (e.g., “The other person would feel hurt,
and I never try to hurt anyone”); (g) indicated physical rather than
moral elicitors (“I could gross out someone simply by picking up
a worm; for someone to be morally disgusted with me, I’d have to
do something shameful”); (h) was less intense or less meaningful
(e.g., “Lesser of the two”); or (i) was indicative of a superiority or
status judgment (e.g., “Because contemptuous indicates air of
superiority”). Justifications often invoked multiple themes and
were given a score of 1 or 0 for each theme. Justifications not
easily classified into one of these categories were given a score for
“other.” Reliability between the two coders overall was substantial
(Cohen’s ␬⫽.66), and reliability for individual categories ranged
from .47 (feeling bad about the self) to .93 (physical elicitors).
Disagreements between the two coders were resolved by a third
coder.
Results
Emotion preferences. Participants’ preferences strongly sup-
ported our social–functionalist account. Compared with moral
disgust, participants by a wide margin preferred to be the recipient
of someone’s anger (43 vs. 3),
2
(1, N46) 34.78, p.001;
contempt (38 vs. 8),
2
(1, N46) 19.56, p.001; sadness (31
vs. 15),
2
(1, N46) 5.6, p.02; and basic disgust (40 vs. 6),
2
(1, N46) 25.81, p.001. Participants also strongly
preferred to be the target of someone’s anger than contempt (40 vs.
6),
2
(1, N46) 25.13, p.001, and to anger rather than
sadden someone (38 vs. 8),
2
(1, N46) 19.56, p.001.
Justifications for emotion preferences.
Anger versus moral disgust. Among the majority of partici-
pants preferring to be the target of anger versus moral disgust, 58%
argued that anger was of shorter duration or more easily reversed.
Sixty percent further specified that anger was less indicative that a
person’s inherent moral character was lacking or that anger could
be responsive to a single action (21%). A sense of self-shame or
sadness was also cited as justification by 12% of participants. The
three participants who indicated they would rather induce moral
disgust generally gave idiosyncratic responses not easily catego-
rized (e.g., “[I prefer moral disgust] because I always have this
feeling that I am not like other people and am morally different in
my actions”).
Contempt versus moral disgust. A similar set of justifications
was provided by participants who preferred to be the target of
contempt to moral disgust: 30% argued that moral disgust would
last longer or be more difficult to remedy; 35% thought that moral
disgust was more telling of a person’s character; and 14% said that
contempt could simply be the result of idiosyncratic values on the
part of someone experiencing it. Sixteen percent of participants
argued that contempt was simply less intense. Of the eight partic-
ipants preferring to elicit moral disgust rather than contempt, 42%
gave idiosyncratic responses. Twenty-two percent argued that con-
tempt rather than moral disgust was more difficult to undo. None
argued that contempt would be more indicative of one’s character.
Sadness versus moral disgust. Of the participants indicating
that moral disgust was a worse emotion, 29% justified their choice
because disgust was a stronger judgment of their moral character,
was less reversible (29%), was more intense or meaningful (20%),
or would make them more ashamed of themselves (13%). Among
participants selecting sadness as the worse emotion to inspire, most
indicated that they did not want to be the source of another
person’s pain (40%), whereas smaller numbers indicated that sad-
ness would last longer (20%).
Grossed out versus moral disgust. Of the majority of partic-
ipants preferring someone to feel “grossed out,” most thought
Table 3
Percentage of Subjects Selecting an Emotion as Best Descriptive for Community Violations and Incompetent Actions (Study 3)
Action type Anger Moral disgust Contempt Sadness Pity Grossed out Amused
Community violation 16.25 39.08 13.57 9.76 7.68 0.21 13.46
Incompetent action 7.98 1.38 11.79 3.30 28.86 1.33 47.32
Note.N106.
729
SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
grossed out was less indicative of one’s moral character (18%),
would be a less severe or meaningful emotion (30%), would be of
shorter duration (25%), or could be felt to purely physical breaches
of etiquette (23%). Of the minority who preferred someone feel
morally disgusted, two cited idiosyncratic reasons, and one person
each thought that being grossed out was more indicative of one’s
moral character, less subject to idiosyncratic perspectives, would
hurt the other person more, or would inspire more self-shame.
Anger versus contempt. Of the participants preferring anger
to contempt, 60% argued the contempt would last longer or would
be harder to remedy than anger. However, compared with moral
disgust, fewer participants argued that contempt was a stronger
statement about a person’s inherent moral character (8%). In
addition, whereas no participants mentioned issues of status or
superiority when comparing anger to moral disgust, 8% of partic-
ipants mentioned this issue in distinguishing anger from contempt.
Of the six participants preferring to be the target of contempt, two
argued that contempt would be easier to undo.
Anger versus sadness. Participants who preferred making
someone angry justified their choice in several ways: 50% argued
that sadness was longer lasting or harder to undo, whereas 21%
argued that they would feel worse for having hurt someone. Of
participants who preferred making someone sad, 25% said that
they wished to avoid the violence or aggression of anger, 25%
thought anger would be more difficult to undo, 13% cited greater
sympathy for the person’s anger, and 13% cited idiosyncratic
reasons.
Discussion
The results of Study 4 strongly supported the predictions of our
social–functionalist perspective. Participants’ beliefs concerning
the consequences of each emotion painted a clear picture of moral
disgust as the most damaging emotion, both because it seems
hardest to undo and is most indicative of a person’s inherent moral
character. Anger, according to participants, is the most easily
remedied, is more concerned with specific actions, and is most
likely to arise from a misunderstanding or individually held atti-
tude. Contempt lies somewhere in the middle, being considerably
worse than anger, but considerably better than moral disgust.
Moreover, though relatively few participants mentioned issues of
status or superiority for any emotion, contempt was the only
emotion to receive justifications consistent with such an appraisal.
Study 5: Action Tendencies and Judgments in
Recalled Events
Study 4 supported the predictions of our account indirectly, by
demonstrating that people distinguish these emotions when imag-
ining being on the receiving end of these emotions. Whether these
emotions are associated with different action tendencies and judg-
ments where actual events are concerned remains unclear. In Study
5, we asked participants to recall events from their lives and rate
the responses, judgments, and emotions associated with each.
We made several predictions. First, we expected anger to be
uniquely associated with active attempts to change or prevent harm
to the self and to be more sensitive than either contempt or moral
disgust to attempts by the offending party to make reparations. It
should not be as strongly correlated with character judgments of
either incompetence or immorality. Second, in contrast to anger,
moral disgust should be most strongly associated with the judg-
ment that a person is immoral. To the extent that it is a less active
emotion than anger, it should be associated with avoidance re-
sponses but not with attempts to stop an offensive act. Finally, to
the extent that it is harder to undo and evokes more lasting
character judgments, it should not be sensitive to an apology and
should render attempts at reparations less acceptable. Third, in
contrast to both anger and moral disgust, contempt should be
associated with the judgment that a person is incompetent, as well
as with feelings of superiority, but should not correlate with
judgments that the person is immoral.
Method
Participants. Thirty participants, recruited online through the
Stanford University Psychology Department participant database,
completed a set of web-based questionnaires in exchange for $5.
Of these, three were excluded for response times that suggested
they were not completing the questionnaires in good faith (i.e.,
taking less than 10 s to recall an event and answer 19 questions).
The final sample consisted of 27 participants (mean age 34.6 years,
range 19 60; 70% female and 30% male; 67% Caucasian, 19%
Asian or Asian American, 11% Black, 3% Hispanic or Latino).
Materials and procedure. Participants gave informed con-
sent, completed three questionnaires, and then filled out a short
demographic form. For each questionnaire, participants were given
one of three instructions, with order counterbalanced across sub-
jects:
1. “Think of the most recent time you can remember when
someone did something that had a negative impact on
you. This does not have to be anything necessarily
immoral (although it can be), but just something that
affected you in a bad way.” (Self-relevant event)
2. “Think of the most recent time you can remember when
you saw or heard about someone else (not you) doing
something immoral,wrong,or offensive, but that did not
directly affect you.” (Immoral event)
3. “Think of the most recent time you can remember when
you saw or heard about someone else (not you) doing
something stupid,idiotic,or incompetent.” (Incompe-
tent event)
After describing the particular event they had recalled, participants
answered a set of 19 questions. The first four questions asked
about specific features of the event: how long ago the event had
occurred, whether the participants had seen the event occur them-
selves (or simply heard about it through someone else), whether
they had been directly affected by the event, and whether someone
they knew personally had been directly affected by the event.
To examine responses hypothesized to relate to anger, we asked
participants to indicate on a Likert scale from 0 (not at all)to4
(extremely) how much they felt like personally putting in effort to
get the person(s) responsible to stop or change what they were
doing and how much they felt that the person(s) responsible should
be punished for what they did. We also asked them to indicate
whether the person(s) responsible had apologized or tried to make
730 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
amends for what they did, with “yes,” “no,” and “don’t know” as
response options.
To examine responses hypothesized to relate to moral disgust,
we asked participants to indicate on a 4-point Likert scale how
much they currently felt like they would go to some effort to avoid
contact with the person(s) responsible and whether an apology/
amends would (or did) suffice to make up for what the person did.
We also asked them to indicate how much the action had nega-
tively affected their impression of the person’s moral character and
how generally immoral, unethical, or offensive they thought the
actor was.
To examine responses hypothesized to relate to contempt, we
asked participants to indicate on a 4-point Likert scale how much
they felt superior to the person(s) described in the event, how much
the action had negatively affected their impression of the person’s
intelligence or competence, and how generally stupid, idiotic, or
incompetent they thought the person was.
Participants then reported how much they had felt angry, mor-
ally disgusted, contemptuous, and grossed out at the time of the
event, on a 4-point Likert scale. Because retrospective accounts
may be biased, and because some of the responses, particularly
character judgments, might be more strongly related to current
emotions, we also asked participants to report how much of each
of the four emotions they currently felt about the event.
Results
Manipulation check. Examination of the event descriptions
provided by participants confirmed that they followed instructions.
Self-relevant events typically evoked descriptions of minor of-
fenses affecting the participant, such as insensitivity or irrespon-
sibility, but also more serious crimes, such as theft and cheating.
Immoral events evoked descriptions of lying, cheating, stealing,
and cruelty. Most immoral events directly affected someone other
than the participant, although a minority (28%) were reported as
affecting the self as well. Incompetent events evoked descriptions
of carelessness, illiteracy, and irresponsibility, and a substantial
minority cited dangerous behavior in traffic. Just under half (46%)
reported being affected by the incompetent event directly. The
majority of events (71%) had occurred within the last month.
Average emotion intensity across event types. We pre-
dicted that, as in the hypothetical scenarios used in Studies 1–3,
anger should be highest in self-relevant offenses, moral disgust
should be highest in moral offenses, and contempt should be
highest in incompetent offenses. Table 4 reports means and stan-
dard deviations for each emotion for each event type. As predicted,
anger was significantly more intense in self-relevant events than
any other emotion, for both past and current time periods, all
ts(26) 4.18, all ps.001, all ds1.07. Also as predicted,
moral disgust was the most intense emotion reported in immoral
events, for both past and current emotion, although this was not
significantly greater than anger, the second highest emotion, at
either time point, both paired ts(26) 1.1, ns.
However, contrary to predictions, contempt was only the second
highest emotion in incompetent events, being significantly lower
than anger at both past, paired t(26) 1.95, p.06, d0.33, and
current time points, paired t(26) 2.12, p.04, d0.28, but
higher than moral disgust at both past, paired t(26) 2.93, p
.005, d0.43, and current time points, paired t(26) 1.76, p
.05 one-tailed, d0.29.
Association between action tendencies and emotions. Our
primary interest in Study 5 concerned not differences in average
emotion across event types but the associations between specific
emotions and specific action tendencies and judgments. To exam-
ine this question, we first conducted tests to verify that the rela-
tionship between emotions and action tendencies/judgments was
not significantly different across event type. Using hierarchical
linear modeling, with subjects specified as a random factor, we
tested for the presence of a significant interaction between event
type and the influence of each emotion (anger, moral disgust,
contempt, grossed out) on each action tendency/judgment (tried to
stop, wanted to punish, would avoid, apology would help, felt
superior, judged immoral, changed view of immorality, judged
incompetent, changed view of incompetence) in either time period.
These analyses indicated that only for moral disgust, and then only
for avoidance behavior, was there a significant interaction between
event type and response: for time of the event, F(2, 75) 3.71,
p.03; currently, F(2, 75) 2.96, p.06. For all other emotions
and action tendencies/judgments, there were no differences in
relation across event type, all Fs(2, 75) 2.5, all ps.1. In all
further analyses, we thus examined the main effect of each emo-
tion on actions and judgments.
Table 4
Average Emotional Intensity by Event Type (Study 5)
Event type
Anger Moral disgust Contempt Grossed out
M SD M SD M SD M SD
Emotion at the time of the event
Self-relevant 2.14
a
0.85 0.82
b
1.06 1.11
b
1.07 0.29
c
0.71
Immoral 1.61
a,b
1.10 1.79
a
1.07 1.42
b
1.24 0.75
c
1.00
Incompetent 1.39
a
1.23 0.54
b
0.79 1.00
a
1.12 0.57
b
0.92
Emotion currently felt about the event
Self-relevant 1.32
a
0.98 0.53
b
0.92 0.64
b
0.95 0.32
b
0.86
Immoral 1.00
a
1.02 1.25
a
1.00 1.14
a
1.15 0.54
b
0.92
Incompetent 0.93
a
1.09 0.39
b
0.69 0.64
a
0.99 0.43
c
0.69
Note.N27. Within a row, emotions that share a superscript do not differ significantly at the p.05 level.
731
SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
To determine which emotions were uniquely and independently
associated with a particular action tendency or judgment, we
constructed a hierarchical linear model with the target action
tendency/judgment as the dependent variable and both past and
current intensity of anger, moral disgust, contempt, and grossed
out as predictors. The model also included subjects specified as a
random effect and event type as a fixed effect. Starting from this
full model, we then used backward elimination to remove predic-
tors that were not significantly correlated with the target variable
after controlling for the effect of all other included variables,
removing the least significant predictor at each step. We continued
with backward selection until all variables continued to signifi-
cantly predict that measure. For example, in the full model pre-
dicting the action tendency related to attempts to stop or intervene
in the event (
1
*Past Anger ⫹␤
2
*Current Anger ⫹␤
3
*Past
Moral Disgust ⫹␤
4
*Current Moral Disgust ⫹␤
5
*Past Con-
tempt ⫹␤
6
*Current Contempt ⫹␤
7
*Past Grossed Out
8
*Current Grossed Out ⫹␤
9
*Event Type), we found that only
past anger was significantly related to attempts to stop (b0.41,
SE 0.17, p.02), and no other variable predicted this measure
at the p.05 level. We then proceeded by running the same
model, dropping the least significant variable from the analysis (in
this case, current anger, p.84). We proceeded in this manner
until all included variables were significant at p.05, leaving in
this case only anger ( p.001). Below, we summarize the results
of this procedure for each action tendency/judgment. As supple-
ments to the full model, we also analyzed the effects of these
emotions separately for intensity at each time point (e.g.,
1
*Past
Anger ⫹␤
2
*Past Moral Disgust ⫹␤
3
*Past Contempt ⫹␤
4
*Past
Grossed Out ⫹␤
5
*Event Type). We discuss the results of these
models only if they differed meaningfully from the full model.
Anger-related responses. The hypothesis that anger should
be uniquely related to attempts to stop or intervene against the
actions of the perpetrator when an offense took place was strongly
confirmed. After elimination, only anger experienced at the time of
the event predicted actions taken to stop the perpetrator (b0.54,
SE 0.10, p.001).
We also predicted that if anger motivates active response until a
wrong has been alleviated, it should be deactivated if the perpe-
trator has apologized or tried to make amends. To test this, we
examined the relation between each emotion and the presence of
an apology (coded as 1 if present, 0 if absent, and .5 if the
participant was unsure). As expected, only currently felt anger was
correlated, negatively, with the presence of an apology (b– 0.12,
SE 0.05, p.01).
Finally, we predicted that anger might be implicated in wanting
to punish a person in order to prevent future threat. This prediction
was only partially confirmed. Anger at the time of the event was
positively correlated with the desire to punish (b0.29, SE
0.10, p.004), but moral disgust at that time predicted this
impulse even more strongly (b0.49, SE 0.10, p.001).
Moral disgust-related responses. In contrast to the approach
and attack behavior associated with anger, we expected avoidance
to be more strongly associated with moral disgust. However, we
instead found that only current anger correlated with being willing
to expend effort to avoid coming into contact with a person (b
0.51, SE 0.12, p.001).
We further hypothesized that moral disgust should nullify the
effectiveness of an apology or reparations, because the judgment
that someone is inherently evil might make such attempts suspect.
Although no emotion correlated with the effectiveness of an apol-
ogy in the full model, when analyzing current emotion only, moral
disgust alone marginally predicted an apology’s effectiveness (b
– 0.22, SE 0.13, p.09).
Finally, we predicted and found moral disgust to be the emotion
most strongly tied to immoral character judgments. Current moral
disgust was the emotion most strongly associated with overall
immoral character judgments (b0.49, SE 0.12, p.001),
whereas past moral disgust was the emotion most strongly asso-
ciated with a changed view of a person’s moral character (b
0.77, SE 0.09, p.001). Current anger also predicted moral
character judgments, albeit more weakly (b0.35, SE 0.10,
p.001). No other emotions significantly predicted changes in
moral character judgments after backward selection in the full
model.
Contempt-related responses. We predicted and found that
contempt would be most strongly related to issues relevant to
competence and status judgments. Only current contempt was
related to feeling superior (b0.61, SE 0.08, p.001). In
addition, current contempt was the emotion most strongly related
both to overall assessments of incompetence (b0.48, SE 0.11,
p.001) and to changes in competence judgments (b0.51,
SE 0.09, p.001). Past anger was also more weakly related to
both judgments (incompetent character: b0.20, SE 0.11, p
.07; changes in incompetency judgment: b0.17, SE 0.09, p
.05).
Discussion
Substantial support was observed for our predictions. In recall-
ing episodes from their recent past, participants reported the great-
est anger in self-relevant events and the greatest moral disgust in
immoral events. Although contempt was only the second highest
emotion in incompetence events, behind anger, this may have been
due in part to the nature of the events recalled, which were often
issues affecting the self, or related to dangerous traffic maneuvers
rather than incompetence or stupidity per se.
In the more direct test linking the intensity of specific emotions
to the intensity of specific action tendencies and judgments, we
observed quite a bit of support for our hypotheses. First, only anger
was associated with active attempts to stop an offensive behavior.
Anger was also the only emotion to be defused by the verifiable act
of an apology. Second, although moral disgust was not strongly
associated with any overt behaviors, it was the emotion most
predictive of attributing an immoral character to another person.
Consistent with this, it was also the emotion most likely to render
an apology or attempts at amends insufficient to make up for the
original act, corroborating the assertions of participants in Study 4
that it is the most difficult emotion to undo. Finally, contrary to the
predictions of an account in which contempt is a specifically moral
emotion, we found that it was specifically and uniquely associated
with judgments related to incompetence, stupidity, and status, but
not to immorality.
However, we did observe some noteworthy exceptions to the
general confirmation of our predictions. First, we had predicted
that moral disgust, whose nonsocial counterpart is typically asso-
ciated with withdrawal, would be most strongly associated with
avoidance, but instead we found that only anger predicted this
732 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
behavior. This is consistent with work suggesting that anger mo-
tivates both approach and avoidance behavior (Averill, 1982) and
with the idea that anger enables higher energy expenditure in
support of defense against an offensive act. The wording of our
question, which emphasized going to some effort to avoid a
person, may have been too suggestive of this higher energy re-
sponse, whereas moral disgust may be associated with a more
passive avoidance than the kind we tested here. Second, contrary
to our predictions, we observed a weaker but consistent involve-
ment of anger in both immorality and competency judgments,
suggesting that anger does play a role in judgments of a person’s
character. One possibility for this weaker relationship is that anger
does indeed provoke negative character judgments, but, as an
emotion more sensitive to attempts at reparation, those effects are
of shorter duration and easier mitigation than the effects of either
disgust or contempt.
General Discussion
The primary question addressed by the studies presented here
concerned the separability of the three other-condemning emo-
tions: anger, moral disgust, and contempt. Although some theories
have made distinctions between all three emotions (i.e., the CAD
triad hypothesis; Rozin et al., 1999), more typical models have
made fewer distinctions (Fiske et al., 2002; Mackie et al., 2000),
and solid evidence concerning either their distinction or separabil-
ity has remained scant. As a whole, the research presented here
provides evidence for the value of considering these emotions as
three separate entities. Varying antecedent appraisals clearly in-
fluenced the emotions people considered relevant to a particular
situation (Studies 1–3). People also clearly distinguished these
emotions in their beliefs about the social consequences, strongly
preferring anger over contempt and contempt over disgust (Study
4). Finally, these emotions were associated with unique profiles of
responses and judgments in real-life events (Study 5). Although
other distinctions, also motivated by social functionalism, have
been proposed (Rozin et al., 1999), we believe that they may be
importantly incomplete and that a social functionalism that incor-
porates issues of self-relevance and broadens the domain of these
emotions to include nonmoral issues such as competence is re-
quired to fully explain the differences between them.
The Social Antecedents and Consequences of Anger,
Disgust, and Contempt
The strongest support for the viability of the social–functionalist
account presented here was found in antecedent appraisals that
differentiated the three emotions. The results of Studies 1–3 sug-
gest that, on a semantic level at least, people do distinguish
between anger, moral disgust, and contempt. Anger appears to be
evoked by appraisals of self-relevance, disgust seems to be related
most strongly to appraisals that a person is morally untrustworthy,
and contempt seems uniquely related to the judgment that someone
is incompetent or unintelligent. Given the pattern of results in
Studies 1–3, it will prove interesting in future work to further
elaborate the necessary and sufficient appraisals that elicit these
emotions. Self-relevance clearly impacts the degree to which anger
is experienced in response to a negative event, but other consid-
erations may be necessary in order to predict whether anger or
some other emotion will be evoked in response to someone’s
behavior. For example, though it is unclear from the research
presented here and elsewhere, introspection and casual observation
suggest that any significant and consequential act, regardless of its
moral overtones, might elicit anger as long as it is self-relevant.
Moreover, it is clear that people can often be angry at events that
on their surface do not directly impact the self. Whether such anger
is related to an expanded definition of self that incorporates other
individuals, groups, or nations, or whether it is sensitive to other
factors, remains to be seen.
A similar consideration of the necessary and sufficient condi-
tions for moral disgust and contempt is also instructive. Of the two,
disgust seems to most clearly emerge as specifically and uniquely
tied to intentional, immoral behavior. In Studies 1–3, the morality
of the behavior seemed to be directly tied to the degree to which
participants experienced disgust. One possibility is that this is an
artifact of the label “moral,” which in all studies was applied to the
word disgust and not to anger or contempt. Although this term was
used deliberately to help separate moral and nonmoral forms of
disgust, it will be useful in future studies to linguistically distin-
guish moral and nonmoral forms of anger and contempt for par-
ticipants or to use other ways of distinguishing such emotions,
such as facial expression, to observe the effects that this additional
specification has on the extent to which participants treat these
terms as similar or differentiable.
Despite many of the results supporting the social–functionalist
model’s envisioned role for contempt, this emotion still remains
the most nebulous of the three. Although contempt was clearly
linked to incompetence in Study 3, it may be that this is only one
of a number of necessary eliciting appraisals for it. Simply being
incompetent may be enough to elicit sadness, pity, or amusement
(as seen in Study 3), but to elicit contempt may require something
more, including but not limited to a judgment of moral laxness, an
unsympathetic nature, or a competitive relationship to the per-
ceiver (cf. Fiske et al., 2002).
Studies 4 and 5 provided complementary evidence to Studies
1–3, suggesting that these emotions may be linked to distinct sets
of social responses. People clearly think of these emotions as
having different consequences and may use them in free speech to
communicate to others their likely actions and responses. These
emotions also appear to be differentially tied to real-world behav-
iors and judgments. Although anger was most strongly associated
with overt responses and was the only emotion sensitive to at-
tempts by another person to repair the damage done by an action,
moral disgust was most strongly associated with moral character
judgments, and contempt was most strongly associated with in-
competence character judgments.
Implications for Affective Science
We have argued that it is useful to distinguish anger, contempt,
and moral disgust from one another and from other affective states
such as sadness, fear, or basic disgust. Yet it is also useful to note
how much overlap was observed between these emotions. Com-
paratively large differences in the relative levels of anger, disgust,
or contempt often occurred in the context of comparatively small
differences in the overall or absolute levels. Even when people
claimed that disgust most strongly captured a particular experi-
733
SOCIAL–FUNCTIONALIST ACCOUNT OF MORAL EMOTIONS
ence, they also reported feeling intense contempt, anger, or even
sadness.
What does it mean for affective science that emotional states
seem to be so frequently coactivated and, to some extent, inter-
changeable? Does it suggest that distinctions among discrete emo-
tions are the result of acquired experience of a stochastic and often
noisy nature, rather than the action of cleanly separated, hard-
wired biological mechanisms? Or that our current methods—in
both lay and scientific settings—fail to capture the truly relevant
dimensions of emotional experience (L. F. Barrett et al., 2007)?
How does the evidence presented here bear upon the current
understanding of these emotions as they are typically viewed in the
literature? The considerable overlap and co-occurrence observed
here, combined with the observation of clear distinctions between
them in antecedent appraisals and functional consequences, lends
support to models in which anger, disgust, and contempt share a
common socioemotional core. These emotions are clearly more
similar to each other than they are to other emotions. Any differ-
ences among them may be the result of linguistic and semantic
elaborations overlaid on a single underlying emotion. However,
this work also points to the importance of understanding when, and
why, these emotions differ, and several avenues for future explo-
ration arise out of a consideration of the limitations of the research
and the subtleties of the results.
Limitations and Future Directions
One important limitation of the studies presented here is their
reliance on self-reported measures of affect and behavior, which
restricts any conclusions drawn from the data concerning the
predictions of the social–functional account. Although generally
supportive evidence for actions and action tendencies was found in
both Studies 4 and 5, it will be important in the future to more
clearly and directly observe differences in behavior or cognition
between these emotions. One particularly fascinating area in which
direct observation of these emotions will be crucial involves the
way experience of these emotions is communicated to others and
used to shape social behavior. Although we have focused in this
article on the intraindividual functions of these emotions, a signif-
icant function of these emotions is also likely to derive from their
impact on others. Being able to express anger toward a target (i.e.,
with an angry facial expression) may be useful as a way of
terminating the target’s behavior without requiring additional,
higher cost behaviors. The adaptiveness of communicating either
disgust or contempt is less clear. One possibility is that whereas
anger may be more adaptive to express toward its target, disgust
and contempt may be more adaptive to express toward others
around the target. In the same way that gossip may serve to
establish reputational effects and consolidate group behaviors
(Dunbar, 1996), being able to express judgments about another in
facial or postural changes may serve both intra- and interindividual
functions.
Another particularly interesting question suggested by the re-
sults of the studies here concerns the relevant target for these
emotions. A social–functionalist approach suggests that these emo-
tions evolved for the judgment of specific individuals, but recent
research also suggests that emotions may exert their influence not
just at the level of individual interactions but also at the level of
public policy initiatives, legal precedent, and institutional struc-
tures designed to govern private and public behavior (Averill,
1982; Nussbaum, 2004; Olatunji & Sawchuk, 2005). Do the dif-
ferences between anger, contempt, and disgust that we observed at
an individual level carry over into decisions made concerning
actors on a larger stage, such as countries or institutions? Are
particular emotions, such as anger, more readily extended toward
larger social entities than others, such as disgust? Are there other
emotions besides anger, disgust, and contempt that more readily
apply to larger groups of individuals or organizations?
A final set of unanswered questions in this research concerns the
personal and cultural factors that shape an individual’s sociomoral
responses to others’ behaviors. Researchers have shown that the
tendency to experience particular types of emotion often predicts
social attitudes, such as evaluation of social outgroups (Hodson &
Costello, 2007). Whether individual differences in the tendency to
experience the three moral emotions are linked to particular atti-
tudes or response styles remains largely unknown (Tybur et al.,
2009). Some researchers have suggested that judgments concern-
ing the stability of a person’s moral or intellectual character,
termed entitativity, are reliable within individuals across time and
relate in meaningful ways to worldviews and attitudes (e.g., Chiu,
Dweck, Tong, & Fu, 1997). Whether this dimension of social
judgment is related to tendencies to experience disgust, anger,
contempt, or other emotions remains to be seen. Furthermore,
recent research suggests that culture, religion, or political orienta-
tion may have a dramatic impact on the social judgments that are
emphasized (e.g., Graham et al., 2009). Our research focused on
American undergraduates, a cultural group whose psychology may
not always be adequately representative or generalizable (Henrich,
Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). How cultural and/or group differ-
ences impact the differentiation between these emotions, their
expression, or social consequences promises to be a fruitful and
timely avenue of exploration in an increasingly interconnected
world.
Concluding Comment
Humans appear to have rich and differentiated mental and
emotional lives compared to other animal species. Some research-
ers have suggested that this complexity stems from the greater
social complexity of human groups (e.g., Dunbar, 1998). The
social–functionalist account described here suggests that the rich-
ness and variability of emotions is due to the richness and vari-
ability of the social environment and the necessity of having
coordinated sets of responses to it. Understanding the number and
function of social emotions may inform our understanding not only
of the architecture of emotion but of ourselves as social animals:
What do we care about, what are we capable of, and how can we
change? The studies described in this article aimed to elaborate the
relations among three emotions of primary importance in judging
others: anger, moral disgust, and contempt. They suggest that these
emotions each play separable roles in social behavior, distinguish-
ing emotions along dimensions that mark the need for immediate
action (anger vs. disgust/contempt) and along fundamentally or-
thogonal dimensions of human behavior (morality vs. compe-
tence). The studies highlight the utility of the social–functionalist
perspective and point to the importance of considering anger,
moral disgust, and contempt as separable— but often overlap-
ping— emotions that shape our social lives.
734 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
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Appendix A
Questionnaire Items Used in Study 2
1. [You/Your friend/A person] bump[s] into a man, causing
the books and papers he is carrying to fall and scatter
over the ground. He exclaims, “Clumsy idiot!” and
brushes off [your/your friend’s/their] attempt to help him.
2. A man calls his wife a “fat cow.” (C)
3. A girl tells [you/your friend/a friend of hers] that she has
no time to spend with [you/them/them] because she has
too much homework. A few minutes later, she is seen
sitting in a boy’s lap and flirting with him.
4. A person steals a purse from a blind woman. (C)
5. A student steals [your/your friend’s/another student’s]
exam and copies it.
6. A boy laughs when he sees [you/your friend/a person]
fall and hurt [yourself/themselves/themselves].
7. A young man pulls down the pants [you are/a friend of
yours is/a person is] wearing in public and laughs.
8. A boy steals [your/your friend’s/a student’s] bike and
then is heard bragging about it later.
9. A man sneaks into his daughter’s room and steals money
from her, to buy himself some beer. (C)
Note. Control (C) items did not vary across the three alterna-
tive versions of the questionnaire.
(Appendices continue)
736 HUTCHERSON AND GROSS
Appendix B
Questionnaire Items Used in Study 3
Version 1
1. A man who tries to impress a woman by fixing her car,
but actually makes it run worse. (Competence)
2. A person who tries to use large words to sound smart,
but mispronounces them. (Competence)
3. A teenager who begins to eat dinner at the table before
everyone else is served. (Moral/community violation)
4. A person who regularly leaves work an hour early when
no one else is around. (Moral/community violation)
5. A woman who thinks she’s a brilliant designer, but
actually makes ugly, unoriginal clothes. (Competence)
6. A French translator who has a very bad, “American”
accent. (Competence)
7. A person who embezzled from a bank. (Moral/
autonomy violation)
8. A man who doesn’t go to his own mother’s funeral.
(Moral/community violation)
9. A waiter who often misremembers customers’ orders.
(Competence)
10. A person who thinks the rhymes on cheap greeting
cards are good poetry. (Competence)
Version 2
1. A 16-year-old refuses to give up his/her seat on the bus
to a crippled old lady. (Moral/community violation)
2. An oversensitive employee directly criticizes his boss.
(Moral/community violation)
3. A person who thinks cleaning a CD with sandpaper will
get it cleaner than using a soft rag. (Competence)
4. A secretary who is too lazy to spell check, and so
consistently signs letters “Your’s truley.” (Competence)
5. A company executive refuses to sit next to a laborer on
a train. (Moral/community violation)
6. A 10-year-old child who says dirty words to his parents.
(Moral/community violation)
7. An ambassador to Latin America who thinks the coun-
try’s official language is Latin. (Competence)
8. An architect who forgets to include an elevator in his
design of a 20-story high rise. (Competence)
9. An 8-year-old student who speaks to his teacher in the
same way as he talks to his friends. (Moral/community
violation)
10. An applicant to a software job who only knows how
program in Basic, but not C or C⫹⫹. (Competence)
Received March 2, 2010
Revision received October 2, 2010
Accepted December 3, 2010
737
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