We rarely question our emotional responses, or how other people trigger them. Luckily, psychological studies like the one recently published in the journal Psychological Science give us valuable insight. Here, these studies bring us clarity on the matter of how we usually respond to other’s personalities and actions.

Psychological scientist Hanah Chapman of Brooklyn College, the City University of New York, and Professor Roger Giner-Sorolla of the University of Kent collaborated in this research. The two had separately reached different conclusions in their previous research.

On this occasion, they joined forces to produce 3 studies that examined whether it is specifically disgust or anger that prevail in certain situations when we respond to human immoralities.

Study 1: disgust and anger are differentiated

Their first online study involved 87 American residents (52 male, 32 female, and 1 different gender identity; average age of 33.2 years), who were asked to evaluate two scenarios. In one, a man beats his girlfriend because she has cheated on him and, in the other, the man beats her cat for the same reason. The outcomes are different but the immoralities are similar.

The participants rated the act of hurting the cat as being less immoral. On the other hand, the character of the man who harmed his girlfriend was deplored more than that of the man in the second scenario.

This character assessment was connected with a greater sense of disgust on the part of the participants. However, a clear separation between 'character' and 'action' does not exist in this first study, as both men were bad and acted badly. Studies 2 and 3 filled this gap.

Study 2 & 3: we are disgusted by bad characters and angered by bad actions

In these 2 additional studies, 139 undergraduate students (108 female, 31 male; average age of 20 years), and 158 U.S. residents (110 male, 48 female; average age of 31 years) participated in online surveys where they were asked to evaluate two men, one who only had the intention of harming someone else, regardless of the outcome, and another who acted on his intent and hurt another person.

Again, the results showed people's greater predisposition to feel disgusted by the character of a man who only displayed intent, compared to the feeling of anger usually reported in response to a man's actual harmful actions.

These psychological studies show two clear trends regarding how we emotionally respond to others. It is suggested that it is who we are, our character, that can arouse disgust, rather than anger, in others. In contrast, it is our actions that can provoke anger.