Thursday, January 28, 2016

Unclean - That’s Disgusting: Christian Values and Disgust Psychology Sutton Review


Meditations on Purity, 

Hospitality, and Mortality 


Richard Beck

Reviewed by
Geoffrey W. Sutton

My connection to Unclean

By the time I found the book Unclean, I had spent the better part of two years writing a book about moral psychology and Christianity (A House Divided). It just so happened that philosopher, Doug Olena who co-leads a group I attend, chose Unclean for our discussions and as is usual in our group, Doug asked for volunteers. I ended up with a couple of chapters but I quickly read the entire book and found a lot of overlap with the literature I had been reading on disgust psychology—that’s a good thing because it shows Beck was in touch with the research supporting his thesis.

The hook

“Imagine spitting into a Dixie cup. After doing so, how would you feel if you were asked to drink the contents of the cup? (p.1)”

Beck opens with this classic example of disgust on page 1. It comes from experiments by “Dr. Disgust” who is Paul Rozin. I’ve used the example when giving talks on moral psychology—and it works. People wrinkle up their nose in a classic disgust pattern.

What we learn from Beck and other researchers is the power of disgust to influence things we reject or expel because we count them unclean, disgusting, and revolting.

Key strengths of Unclean

Readers will get an easy to read and thorough overview of disgust psychology and the relevance of various experimental findings to show how we generalize from basic disgust responses to considering various activities and people as disgusting.

Disgust is an important emotion because it protects us from germs.

Because disgust is an emotional response with automatic reactions- thoughts and behavior – we may not realize how we reject people in need of care.

The importance for Christians and the church at large is recognizing how this emotional response can reject people who are social outcasts- those people considered “unclean.” We see the problem in Jesus’ day. And we see how the church rejects people today.

A common source of disgust for Christians has to do with people who do not follow church teachings about sexuality. In fact, sex (at least some forms of sex) has a long history of being labeled as dirty.

An awareness of the metaphors we use may help recognize our treatment of social outcasts—people in need of help. Holiness and purity metaphors are associated with being up and above compared to certain people linked to their behavior and considered down and dirty.

Beck recognizes the contribution of Haidt and his colleagues to moral psychology.

Beck explains that every culture has its monsters- people become scapegoats. The classic modern example is the actions of the Nazis toward the Jews.

The answer to the problem of being governed by disgust psychology is the Christian virtue of hospitality. From Abraham to Jesus, Christians have examples of God’s desire to entertain “strangers.”

Godly love leads to loving our neighbors.

What I would add to Unclean

Beck does make the point that godly love overcomes disgust. I think I might make it stronger and focus attention on the research derived from attachment theory. Ironically, Beck developed a useful measure of Attachment to God, which I have used in more than one research study. It’s a good scale. In a study published after Unclean was published, some colleagues and I found attachment to God was linked to forgiveness and compassion (Sutton, Jordan, & Worthington, 2014).

Although Beck mentions the work of Haidt on moral psychology, I don’t think he takes this far enough. There’s a lot of relevance in the moral justifications discovered by Haidt and his colleagues. The richness of considering multiple causes of rejection rather than disgust can help point to a richer sense of how we might promote a greater concern for others. For example, Haidt points to the strength of concern for harm and fairness as common moral impulses. These can and do overcome disgust in many contexts.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, January 28). That’s Disgusting: Christian Values and Disgust Psychology.
[Web log post]. Retrieved from 

The book I reviewed

Beck, R. (2011). Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality. Eugene, OR: Cascade.

About the author

Richard Beck is Professor of Psychology and the Psychology Department Chair at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is an author and researcher who speaks at churches and conferences. I have heard Richard speak at a meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies and can recommend him as an informative and entertaining speaker. Here’s a link to his blog with contact information.

I did not receive a free book or compensation for this post.

My related book

It turns out we have the same publisher (WIPFandSTOCK owns both Cascade and Pickwick).

A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

Buy from Pickwick at WIPFandSTOCK

New from WIPFandSTOCK


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Twitter  @GeoffWSutton 

Website: Geoff W. Sutton

Friday, January 1, 2016

WILLPOWER Setting & Reaching Goals- Book Review by Sutton


Rediscovering the Greatest   
Human Strength

By Roy Baumeister
& John Tierney

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

I go to a gym, which is crowded in January. Regulars know the early Happy-New-Year commitments to fitness will weaken sometime in February.

Roy Baumeister has spent a good part of his career studying self-control. His book, Willpower written with Tierney, entertains and informs us with an organized set of findings explaining factors that influence self-control.

Two critical factors weaken our judgments: food and sleep. We need glucose and sleep to be at our best when it comes to making wise decisions and marking progress toward our goals.

A pretty woman can loosen a man’s grip on his career--we hear these news stories from time to time as one political group takes aim at each other's leaders--men who failed at sexual self-control.

Fat shaming happens. The vulnerable targets are miserable, even depressed. We can almost hear their tears and feel their anger. Anger at self as well as the those who cast verbal stones. The perpetrators are merciless bullies hurling foul insults. The presumption is, we are in full control of our physical appearance, including body shape and weight.

The Willpower authors give us nine chapters worth of self-control information before indulging that common nemesis, dieting.

Baumeister and his colleagues inform us that willpower is like a muscle. Willpower can be strengthened through exercise. And after sustained use, we need a rest and refreshment because our capacity to exert additional willpower has been depleted.

In Baumeister's psychology lab, volunteers were divided into two groups. One group received chocolage-chip cookies. A second group was asked to avoid the cookies and eat radishes. Following the snacks, both groups were asked to work on geometry puzzles that were unsolvable. Which group worked longer? The cookie-eaters lasted 20 minutes but those fighting temptation only lasted 8 minutes--less than half as long. The point of many such studies is that willpower is a limited resource. After exerting willpower to resist temptation, people are worn down.

In other studies, Baumeister and his colleagues found that the same energy needed to employ self-control was important to decision-making. We use willpower everyday. We work to suppress certain thoughts and feelings. We attempt to accomplish difficult tasks. In some settings we work hard to stay focused and resist the temptation to attend to distractions.


Dieting is the most popular New Year’s resolution.

Control of eating —dieting—is tricky because our resolve weakens when we cut back on foods containing glucose! And glucose seems to be a key to helping us resist temptation. Glucose is brain food.

The authors give us three counterintuitive recommendations (p. 352):

   1. Never go on a diet.

   2. Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food.

    3. Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, 
        never equate being overweight with having weak willpower.

Baumeister and Tierney summarize Oprah’s weight control story and observe how difficult it is to manage weight even when experts are employed.

Dieting is difficult because we are designed to survive. Famine is a serious threat to survival. Calorie restriction leads to compensation once a diet has ended. Eventually, diets fail after a few cycles.

What can be done?


1. Set small, reasonable goals. Avoid the unnatural images of the select few on magazine covers.
2. Monitoring food intake is important but hard to do.
3. When craving sweets, allow yourself permission to have a small sweet later.
4. Reduce temptation by controlling your environment—keep the high calorie foods out of sight and out of reach. Just putting candy in a drawer reduced eating by one-third in one study.
5. Avoid evening snacks by brushing teeth early in the evening.
6. Make a commitment with a penalty- but this won’t work if your goal is unrealistic.
7. Realistic weight-loss goals are 5% to 10%.
8. Use the same system of rewards and penalties to maintain weight once it has been lost.
9. Use the implementation intention strategy— make a plan of what to do in common temptation settings. Automatic behavior works better than trying to resist temptation on the spot. For example, decide what you will choose before going to a buffet.
10. Choose events where socializing does not include unhealthy foods—obviously, this can be a problem as no one wants to lose good friends. However, we are social beings who are influenced by our friends.

(Ideas from chapter 10)

There’s More

There’s more to the book than dealing with weight loss. The good news is that aside from dieting, improvements in one aspect of self-control helps with control in another area of life.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, January 1). Setting & Reaching Goals. [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Baumeister, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press

Sutton, G. W. (2015). [Review of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 34, 189-190. ResearchGate Link Academia Link 


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