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Q & A With Psychological Scientist Kendall Eskine

Bitter food, bitter guests… make sure you choose your Thanksgiving menu wisely!

Researchers have found that the taste of the food and drinks that you serve your guests may impact their moral judgments of you. Read about their research here.

Kendall J. Eskine is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Loyola University New Orleans. He has a special interest in how abstract ideas are entwined with our physical and sensory experiences.

Last week we asked our Twitter and Facebook followers to submit questions to Eskine on his research…his answers are below!

1. You cited ‘affect as info’. Any reason to think that conservatives are less cognitively complex and can’t separate emotions?

Since conservatives were more affected than liberals does that mean they are more easily swayed in their morals?

No, I think that both liberals and conservatives can incorporate emotions into their higher-order cognitions. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that our emotional centers play important roles in a variety of decisions (moral, economic, etc.). However, there is also research showing that conservatives do have significantly more grey matter density in their insula, which is a region implicated in the processing of disgust. As a result, and since this study involves disgust, conservatives’ moral judgments were affected more directly. In the future, I am very interested in exploring the conditions under which liberals are more likely to draw from their emotions than conservatives.

3. I noticed that you had to kick out 3 participants because they guessed your hypothesis. Do many studies do this?

Yes, this is a very common practice. Those who guess the hypothesis during the experiment can be more likely to experience demand characteristics.

4. Have you replicated with other types of substitutes for Swedish Bitters? Does it matter?

Personally, I have not, and it should not matter what the substitute is. It seems that this effect is driven by disgust, not bitter tastes in particular or the medium through which it occurs (beverages, radishes, etc.). I have been in contact with various researchers who are currently replicating this effect with other foods. I look forward to hearing their responses! I have conducted some interesting follow up studies in this domain and look forward to publishing them soon!

5. How did you come to choose the specific 3 drinks as opposed to other drinks that are out there that could be more sweet or bitter?

Why did you choose to use drinks instead of food items?

How was deciding upon/ pretesting the stimuli? How to determine overly sweet vs subtly sweet, etc.?

Deciding on stimuli was really difficult! My original plan was to use candy that participants could suck on so the taste lingered (e.g., peppermints, warheads, etc.). After lots of pilot testing, I simply couldn’t find a suitable “disgusting” candy-like food. I eventually found myself in a health food market and was inquiring about intense and disgusting tasting supplements when bitters were recommended to me. In retrospect, I think a variety of flavored jellybeans might have worked best.

6. What first sparked your curiosity on this topic? A specific experience w/ something bitter or sweet & your emotions following it?

My interest in this topic comes from my general interests in grounded and embodied cognition. I find this approach fascinating because it blends so many sub-disciplines of psychology together and (I think) makes a very compelling case for how cognition works. I am also interested in abstract conceptual representations that apply to our everyday lives, like moral judgments. So the pairing seemed obvious at that point. There was also some fantastic experiments that inspired me, as discussed in the article, and I wanted to determine whether the expression “moral taste” reflects something deeper about our cognitive architecture.

7. Did you run into any experiments that also addressed the visual context such as with expressions/ appearances?

Yes! See Simone Schnall’s very interesting research!

8. What about different palates? What if you pick a food that some people think is bitter some think is neutral?

Of course people have different gustatory tastes, which is why I asked participants to rate the extent to which they found the beverage bitter, disgusting, neutral tasting, etc. Regressions confirmed that when people found a beverage disgusting (whichever it was), they made harsher moral judgments.

9. You mention maybe doing the experiment again with more detailed tastes, does that include actual food? What kind of food would you use?

Jellybeans!

10. Could participant’s culture affect how they responded to the moral judgment task? Plans to do this in another culture, another sample?

Great question! This research was conducted in Brooklyn, New York, near one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. We had a great variety of ethnic backgrounds represented in our sample, so I feel pretty confident in the findings. However, it is always important to replicate in other cultures, so I would encourage that in general.

11. What would you predict if more beverages were given (e.g., more sweet drinks, more salty drinks, more bitter drinks)?

More bitter beverages should elicit even harsher judgments.

12. How do you predict that the results would be different in there were more men that participated in the study?

I think they would be about the same. But it is unfortunate, and common, that many experiments have such unequal samples.

13. Strange how bitter taste can make our whole outlook bitter. Does sweet food make us feel sweeter?

If bitterness is linked to negative emotions, is sweetness linked to good feelings? Will eating pie make us less judgmental?

Brian Meier just published some great work in JPSP on that topic. Check it out! I am also preparing some manuscripts that examine that question. Stay tuned!

14. I can understand the aversion to bitter foods, but how did it get linked to morality and judgment?

Drawing from Conceptual Metaphor Theory, one could argue that embodied perceptual states (source domains) are used as a foundation on which later conceptual representations (morality- a target domain) are built.

15. In the conclusion you discuss some of the practical implications of this research, mentioning for example, the possible effect of taste on jury decisions. With everything that goes into making complex decision making and judgments, how important do you think taste actually is?  Is this something we should worry about when making real world decisions?

Great question. It’s really hard to say. I think what this and similar research shows us and is that our judgments are shaped by a myriad of variables. I don’t necessarily think that perceptual information is always the most important kind of information, but I do think it plays a significant role in cognition and thus it’s something to be mindful of.

16. In the conclusion you mention several avenues of future research, such as investigating the time-course of the physical disgust-moral disgust relationship, and understanding the way other tastes such as savory or sour affects moral disgust. Do you know if anyone has started to study these questions?  Have there been any new findings since this article was published?

I know some researchers have looked at other tastes (e.g., sour), but there were some issues/inconsistencies with the measures used to evaluate social judgments.

17. In this study you looked at political orientation and its relationship to physical and moral disgust.  However many people gravitate towards a specific political party because that party reflects their moral, ethical, and perhaps religious ideals.  Is it then safe to say that the differences seen in this study between those who are politically liberal and politically conservative would be seen with any other type of group that held diverging moral, ethical or religious viewpoints?

Good point, but not necessarily. Our sample had a variety of religious orientations. We analyzed their judgments based on this factor, and it made no difference on people’s judgments.

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