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Designing Behavior

What triggers the emotional reaction of disgust? It could be something visually repulsive, a malodorous scent or perhaps even a sound that is evocative of a repellant, nauseating memory. Researchers went as far as to use a particularly memorable scene from the 1996 Danny Boyle classic, Trainspotting to illustrate their findings.

Researchers are discovering that people subjected to inputs that result in disgust, may be more prone to act in unethical ways – ostensibly the result of being conditioned and influenced by the feelings of disgust. By designing stimuli (an event inducing disgust), researchers found that they were able to more likely trigger feeling of self-interest and preservation in their test subjects, and those test subjects would be more prone to bending the truth, or acting in ways that impacted ethical judgment.

Researchers, Karen Page Winterich of Pensylvania State University, Andrea Morales of Arizona State University and Vikas Mittal of Rice University posit that, “ because disgust and happiness are both associated with more heuristic based processing, they both lead to a stronger reliance on the magnitude of consequences when forming ethical judgments. In contrast, because sad and neutral emotional states are associated with more systematic processing, they both result in a weaker reliance on the magnitude of consequences. As such, the effect of magnitude of consequences on judgments of unethical behaviors is stronger when individuals making the judgments are experiencing disgust or happiness versus sadness or a neutral state. This research shows that ethical judgment severity is contingent on individual-level factors, particularly the current emotional state being experienced by the individual, interacting with magnitude of consequences to impact the ethical decision-making process.”

The team conducted a series of tests and experiments, by priming a selection of volunteers by having them watch a scene from Trainspotting which takes place near a particularly disgusting toilet. Another group of volunteers, watched a more benign video, about underwater reefs. Immediately after watching the videos, the volunteers were asked to participate in a game where researchers noted that the group who watched the disgusting scene were more likely to cheat when playing the game.

In a set of similar circumstances where one group was asked to recall a disgusting memory, while the other group was asked to recall a benign memory of a typical evening. Both groups were then asked to participate in a word game – where one of the tasks in the game was unsolvable. More than twice as many of the people who recalled a disgusting event claimed to have solved this task as compared to the test.

While not as far-fetched as the “Ludovic technique” from a Clockwork Orange, this study opens up interesting questions about how perception can influence behavior. Whether inputs and stimuli can be designed to predict other outcomes will be part of ongoing research both in the world of science and design, as more experience designers tilt the odds and help to shape outcomes based on stimuli that has been designed in advance.

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