Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Clin Neuropsychiatry. 2021 Aug;18(4):196-210. doi: 10.36131/cnfioritieditore20210403

Deontological Guilt and Disgust Sensitivity Modulate Moral Behaviour

Objective: Deontological Guilt (DG), and Altruistic Guilt (AG) emerge from the appraisal of violating an internalized rule or an altruistic principle, respectively. DG is strictly connected with Disgust Sensitivity and plays a key role in the development and maintenance of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Previous studies investigated how DG affects responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas, however how DG and Disgust Sensitivity interact modulating moral behavior is still unknown.

Methods: STUDY 1. 46 healthy participants performed an ecological paradigm in which people can spontaneously decide to lie to obtain a reward (egoistic lie) or give it away (altruistic lie) after three emotional inductions: DG, AG or neutral. Furthermore, OCD traits, Morality, Guilt Propensity and Disgust Sensitivity were assessed by means of questionnaires. STUDY 2. 27 participants from the original sample were retested during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy to ascertain whether the pandemic modified traits related to morality, disgust, guilt or OCD symptoms and whether these changes modulated moral behavior (measured by a task in which cheating was associated to higher pay-offs).

Results: STUDY 1. Compared to the neutral, after the DG induction participants produced less altruistic and more egoistic lies. This effect was stronger in participants with high Disgust Sensitivity. STUDY 2. During the COVID-19 lockdown participants became more sensitive to the Authority pillar of the Moral Foundations and more sensitive to Disgust: this increment in deontological morality affected (im) moral behavior depending on changes in Disgust Sensitivity.

Conclusions: Our data suggest that people with high Disgust Sensitivity are more affected by deontological inductions which translate to higher immorality, supposedly by lowering their moral self-image. These results might have important clinical implications as they suggest that addressing Disgust Sensitivity in therapy, might also decrease the effect of guilt on patients' behavior.

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