Professor who studies disgust is next Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor

In academia, disgust is a hot topic.

Over the last decade, this emerging field has grabbed the attention of researchers across the academic spectrum. This spring, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill are tackling it together with the help of a Cornell University psychology professor.

Cornell’s David Pizarro, who has published 10 academic papers on the topic, will be the next Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor, a joint venture between Duke and UNC. He’ll spend the spring semester exploring disgust and moral psychology while splitting time between the two campuses.

The professorship was created in 2004 by then-UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser to honor Keohane, who was stepping down as Duke’s president. It seeks to spark collaboration between the two campuses, a challenge Pizarro embraces in the manner of, as he puts it, “a kid in a candy store.”

“It’s an awesome collection of people at Duke and UNC, so it’s an opportunity to brainstorm and talk and think about new ideas,” Pizarro said. “I get to hang out with people in philosophy and business and psychology. It’s like a vacation for the mind. So many ideas come not from a formal meeting but just from being around people.”

Pizarro will give a formal address in late March and teach a semester-long seminar class split between the two campuses that will “address some cool ideas in moral psychology we should talk about.”

One such area is politics and the moral tendencies of people from various ends of the political spectrum. Pizarro’s research has found that people who are politically conservative generally tend to be more easily disgusted by things they don’t agree with than their more liberal counterparts.

To paint a less-than-appealing picture: “If you ask people how disgusted they’d be to see an unflushed toilet in a public bathroom, a political conservative would be more likely to be grossed out,” Pizarro said.

Bringing Pizarro to campus will help researchers at Duke and UNC more deeply explore how people behave, said Noah Pickus, director of Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics.

“We have for too long treated ethics and politics as matters solely in the realm of reason and political discourse, but there’s a much greater understanding now of the emotional dimension,” Pickus said. “The more we can understand that, the better we can think of ways to deal with political discourse other than just trying to shout the other side down.”

The Keohane Professorship is funded by Carolina graduate Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, and by the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust.

The program also provides $1,000 to each of two graduate students — one each from Duke and UNC — who work in the same area as the visiting professor.

“We’re so grateful to the Kenan Trust and to the Robertsons for sponsoring the Keohane Professorships,” said Carol Tresolini, UNC’s vice provost for academic initiatives. “The visiting faculty serve as catalysts for cross-university scholarship and teaching, and in the process enrich the academic life of both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.”

The next Keohane visiting professor will be Mohsen Kadivar, currently a visiting research professor of Islamic Studies at Duke. He’ll take part in the program in the fall 2014 semester. In Spring 2015, the Keohane visiting professor will be Donald Fullerton, an environmental economist with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Pizarro will give the Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professorship Lecture at 5:30 p.m. on March 24 at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Room 04. It is free and open to the public.

Story courtesy of Eric Ferreri, Office of News and Communications at Duke University.

Published Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.