People are unaware that various innocuous-sounding things are actually affecting them on a regular basis, according to new research by Bayer College of Medicine. Newspapers, radio and tv can influence the way people act by using words that trigger powerful emotions, the researchers found–clean words cause clean thoughts, which produce ethical actions, and dirty words produce disgusted thoughts and immoral actions.

“People don’t know it, but these small emotions are constantly affecting them.” said Vikas Mittal, J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing Adjunct Professor of Family & Community Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, and lead researcher on the study.

“What we found is that unless you ask people, they often don’t know they’re feeling disgusted,” Mittal said. “Small things can trigger specific emotions, which can deeply affect people’s decision-making. The question is how to make people more self-aware and more thoughtful about the decision-making process.”

This is because disgust is an emotion that causes people to protect themselves–that is, focus on their self.

However, lessening disgust causes people to behave more ethically again. This can be done by causing people to think of clean things–cleaning products such as Kleenex or Windex, for example. When disgust is lessened, the likelihood of cheating goes away.

The study involved two sets of randomized experiments with 600 participants. The researchers randomly disgusted their participants in three ways.

In one, participants evaluated antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, cat litter, feminine care pads and adult incontinence products. In another experiment, participants wrote out their most disgusting memory. In a third, a disgusting scene from the film “Trainspotting” was played for the participants. The scene shows a man diving into a dirty toilet.

The disgusted participants engaged in consistently self-interested behaviors at a significantly heightened rate.

After the participants were disgusted, another set of experiments was conducted.

The researchers had some participants evaluate cleaning products–disinfectants, body washes, household cleaners. These participants were returned to a normal level of deceptive behavior.

Managers could use this information to understand how to impact decision-making and cause ethical or unethical behavior, Mittal said. He commented on office cleanliness and cleanliness in the workplace in general.

“At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted,” said Mittal. “If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other.”

“If you’re making important decisions, how do you create an environment that is less emotionally cluttered so you can become progressively more thoughtful?”

The report, “Protect Thyself: How Affective Self-Protection Increases Self-Interested Behavior,” was authored by Mittal and Karen Page Winterich, associate professor of marketing at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, and Andrea Morales, a professor of marketing at Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business, and will be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

By Sid Douglas