“Find something morally sickening? Take a ginger pill” – Jessica Tracy [aeon]

“Find something morally sickening? Take a ginger pill

Jessica Tracy

is a professor of psychology and a Sauder Distinguished Scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is the director of the Self and Emotion Lab at UBC, and an associate editor at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. She is also the author of Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success (2016).



“This gap in scientific knowledge led my former graduate student Conor Steckler to come up with a brilliant idea. As those prone to motion sickness might know, ginger root can reduce nausea. Steckler suggested we feed people ginger pills, then ask them to weigh in on morally questionable scenarios – behaviours such as peeing in a public pool, or buying a sex doll that looks like one’s receptionist. If people’s moral beliefs are wrapped up in their bodily sensations, then giving them a pill that reduces some of those sensations might reduce how wrong those behaviours seem.

In my psychology lab at the University of British Columbia, we filled empty gel capsules with either ginger powder or sugar (for randomly assigned control participants); in a double-blind design, neither the participants nor the researchers running the study knew who received which pill. After swallowing their pills and waiting 40 minutes for them to metabolise, participants were asked to read scenarios describing a range of possible moral infractions, and tell us how morally wrong they believed each to be. Sure enough, as we reported in an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2019, we found the predicted difference. Those who ingested ginger decided that some of those violations, such as someone peeing in your swimming pool, were not so wrong after all. Blocking their nausea changed our participants’ moral beliefs.


The violations that were affected by ginger, in contrast, centred on maintaining the purity of one’s own body. These transgressions are ones that have, historically, carried a high likelihood of transmitting disease. As a result, it is evolutionarily adaptive for us to feel disgusted by, and consequently avoid, close contact with dead bodies, human faeces and certain unsafe sex practices. Throughout human evolutionary history, moralising these behaviours, along with others that protect the sanctity of the body, might have been a useful way for societies to shield their members from dangerous germs they had no cognitive awareness of. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, in many cultures this presumably adaptive tendency morphed into a broader ethic that uses concepts such as purity, sanctity and sin to discourage behaviours perceived to cause some manner of bodily degradation. In many cultures, these rules have stretched far beyond their original adaptive purposes; today, across the globe, societies regulate individuals’ purity-related behaviours by invoking morality in ways that sometimes do – but just as often do not – lead to actual health or social benefits.

We were able to shift people’s sanctity beliefs simply by giving them ginger. A moral view that changes on the basis of how nauseous we feel is probably not one that we want to put a lot of stake in.”


“The physiological basis of psychological disgust and moral judgments.

Tracy, Jessica L. Steckler, Conor M. Heltzel, Gordon

[Tracy, J. L., Steckler, C. M., & Heltzel, G. (2019). The physiological basis of psychological disgust and moral judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(1), 15–32. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000141


To address ongoing debates about whether feelings of disgust are causally related to moral judgments, we pharmacologically inhibited spontaneous disgust responses to moral infractions and examined effects on moral thinking. Findings demonstrated, first, that the antiemetic ginger (Zingiber officinale), known to inhibit nausea, reduces feelings of disgust toward nonmoral purity-offending stimuli (e.g., bodily fluids), providing the first experimental evidence that disgust is causally rooted in physiological nausea (Study 1). Second, this same physiological experience was causally related to moral thinking: ginger reduced the severity of judgments toward purity-based moral violations (Studies 2 and 4) or eliminated the tendency for people higher in bodily sensation awareness to make harsher moral judgments than those low in this dispositional tendency (Study 3). In all studies, effects were restricted to moderately severe purity-offending stimuli, consistent with preregistered predictions. Together, findings provide the first evidence that psychological disgust can be disrupted by an antiemetic and that doing so has consequences for moral judgments. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)”