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Is Morality a Basic Instinct?

Many people assume that morality — our sense of what is “right” and just in this world versus what is wrong — is something we formulate through a process of time, experience and thinking. We equate morality with higher reasoning and not a base instinct like hunger or the need for shelter.

New research out from the University of Toronto suggests that perhaps such thinking is wrong.

In the study, the scientists examined facial movements when participants tasted unpleasant liquids and looked at photographs of disgusting objects such as dirty toilets or injuries.

They compared these to their facial movements when they were subjected to unfair treatment in a laboratory game. The U of T team found that people make similar facial movements in response to both primitive forms of disgust and moral disgust.

The researchers used a technique of measurement of facial muscles contraction using electrodes.

The researchers focused on movement of the levator labii muscle, which acts to raise the upper lip and wrinkle the nose, movements that are thought to be characteristic of the facial expression of disgust. They found activation of this region in all three study situations.

The researchers said,

“However, disgust is an ancient and rather primitive emotion which played a key evolutionary role in survival. Our research shows the involvement of disgust in morality, suggesting that moral judgment may depend as much on simple emotional processes as on complex thought.”

I find it fascinating to imagine that constructs — such as morality — we previously thought of as artificially human-created are actually, in some manner, hard-wired into our brains. Could this just be the result of hundreds of generations of human evolution that has determined that such a morality wiring is beneficial to the survival of the species? Or some artifact of the thought processes involved in making morality judgments?

Further research may make the picture a little more clear.

Read the full article: Bad Behavior Leaves Bad Taste In Mouth.

Is Morality a Basic Instinct?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues -- as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior -- since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He writes regularly and extensively on mental health concerns, the intersection of technology and psychology, and advocating for greater acceptance of the importance and value of mental health in today's society. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Is Morality a Basic Instinct?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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