Embodied cognition: how fart spray can affect your moral reasoning

Scientists have long been grappling with mind-body problem. And in recent years a new theory has emerged. A recent podcast on Radio National Australia looked at embodied cognition. One of the participants, Guy Claxton, gave a nice summary:

Your body is your brain. The brain isn’t just the lump of rather unimpressive-looking porridge that sits between your two ears. The intelligent organ is all the information that is streaming around your body, up to your brain and down from your brain and from your heart to your liver and from your muscles to your skin. When we look at the true way in which intelligence functions, we have to look at ourselves as being this vast conglomerate of almost like a maelstrom of information currents, all of which need to talk to each other and somehow or other have to be resolved in real time into a concerted course of action.

Last year I read a book about this subject, Sensation by Thalma Lobel. She describes how an experience on a holiday in Guatemala set her on a new research path. She awoke in a jungle cottage to absolute silence and pitch-black darkness. It was this disconcerting experience of sensory deprivation that made her want to look at the association between body and mind and the theory of embodied cognition. She summarises her perspective like this:

Our thoughts, our behaviours, our decisions and our emotions are influenced by our physical sensations, by the things we touch, the texture of the things we touch, the temperature of the things we touch, the colours, the smells. All these, without our awareness, influence our behaviours and thoughts and emotions.”

The book is in the style of many popular psychology books written today, such as Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, both of which have been featured in this blog. Lobel argues that the mind can’t work separately from the physical world; that the senses provide a link to both our unconscious and our conscious thought processes. She wants to show the influence that physical sensations exert over our mental states and behaviour. What I most enjoyed were the fascinating experiments. We learn that people prefer a job applicant when their CV is attached to a heavy clipboard; they seemed to perceive the candidate as having a more serious interest in the job. And sitting in a soft chair makes you a softer negotiator. Here are four of the experiments featured in the book:

  1. In 2008 Yale University students were asked to attend a fourth floor laboratory. The experiment really began in the lift, where a research assistant would ask subjects if they could hold her cup of coffee while she took their names. Half of them were handed a hot coffee, while the other half were given an iced coffee. Once she had written down their names, the research assistant took back the coffee and they all went on to the lab, where the participants were asked to judge an unknown person according to a description of their character. The expression a warm person is a typical metaphor we use. But is there something more to it? What we can say is that the subjects who had held the hot cup of coffee in the lift judged the unknown person as being kinder and friendlier. They would have denied this if they had been asked, but that is what the results show.
  2. Researchers prepared two nearly identical videos of football plays (gridiron, I presume) with the only difference being that in one version the players wore white strips and in the other, black. The videos were then played to two groups: students who were college football fans and professional football referees. Both groups were asked how likely they would be to penalise the teams and how aggressively each team was playing. Both the college students and the professional referees said that they would penalize the team in black more often than the one wearing white. The game sequences were more or less identical; the only thing that changed was the colours the teams were playing in. The black kit influenced the referees, leading them to perceive those teams as more aggressive.
  3. In a 2011 study experimenters gave subjects a bit of chocolate, a cracker, or no food. They were then asked to fill out an unrelated questionnaire, after which the participants were told that another professor from the psychology department had just popped in and was looking for volunteers for another, unrelated study Who was more likely to volunteer? The chocolate eaters.
  4. Disgust evoked by physical factors can influence the severity with which we judge moral transgressions, such as stealing library books, offering a bribe, and shoplifting, or moral dilemmas including marriage between first cousins or a scenario in which a man eats his own dead dog. In one study the experimenters sprayed a disgusting smell, a fart spray not far from the participants, while they were answering a questionnaire. In another study participants were given. The results clearly demonstrated that those who were physically disgusted were harsher in their moral judgments compared with those who hadn’t experienced the bad odours or who had drunk sweet or neutral drinks. In other words, the same behaviour was judged as more morally wrong if the person who made the judgment was subjected to unpleasant odours or a disgusting drink. Physical disgust influenced moral disgust. This ties in with studies that show that disgust, which began as a way of protecting us from evolutionary dangers, has become co-opted into other areas. If you are interested in this area check out my post, Ice cream cones, frozen chickens and the meaning of disgust.

I loved all these quirky studies, but I do want to add a word of caution. In a post in January of this year, Brian Nosek and his shades of grey, I looked at the problem of replicability in scientific studies. Indeed the experiments which Nosek studied were in the field of psychology. In his Reproducibility Project he and his colleagues repeated 100 published psychological experiments. Just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. So you do have to wonder whether the experiments presented by Lobel have been replicated elsewhere. Nevertheless I think I will be following the research in embodied cognition. It has the potential to provide us with some fascinating insights into the relationship between mind and body. I am particularly interested in the area of language. Metaphors are not just figures of speech – they reflect physical realities. But that will have to be a subject for another day.


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