Maybe unethical behavior makes your blood boil, or maybe it just plain disgusts you. Apparently, whether immoral actions provoke disgust or anger in you influences how you’ll respond.

Psychologists have known that people can react to immoral behavior with anger or disgust, but it hasn’t been clear to what extent these are different expressions of the same underlying emotion. Are disgust and anger basically equivalent responses to ethical violations, or are they distinct ways of interpreting the same situation?

A group of researchers in Europe decided to investigate this question in more depth, surveying people about their reactions to different kinds of moral transgressions.

The researchers found that some ethical violations provoke more disgust than anger and vice-versa. Moreover, whether the violations provoke disgust or anger affects how people react.

Specifically, when someone is the target of an unethical action – that is, when the action hurts them personally – they are more like to become angry. By contrast, when another person is the target of the unethical action, people tend to experience less anger but more disgust.

When people become angry in response to moral violations, they’re also more likely to respond with direct aggression.

On the other hand, when people experience disgust rather than anger, they tend to opt for indirect aggression. That is, they tend to take aggressive actions that are less risky, more subtle, and done behind the person’s back.

These findings suggest that while disgust and anger are both typical responses to ethical transgressions, the two shouldn’t be treated as equivalent.

It may be that, at least to some extent, people reserve their outright anger for moral violations committed against them personally. This strategy prevents people from becoming directly aggressive every time they witness an unethical action, which minimizes personal risk.

Instead, it appears that people react with disgust to unethical actions that are less personal, punishing people who commit these offenses with more indirect aggression and social exclusion, but not with overtly aggressive behavior.

Image: Flickr/Jelle