Wednesday, February 1, 2012

CultureLab - The yuck factor explained

Tiffanny O'Callaghan, CultureLab editor
books0122krystal.jpgDISGUST can be a bewildering emotion. In her new book, That's Disgusting, research psychologist Rachel Herz points out that our tendency to react by pulling away is based on a combination of self-preservation and learned behaviour.
When we are grossed out we all make the same face: opening the mouth, pulling back the upper lip, wrinkling the nose, even sticking out the tongue. But what causes us to sneer with disgust differs.
When you grow up eating fermented animal products you may consider them delicious, but if you weren't raised munching Stilton cheese it can be gag-inducing stuff. Hákarl - shark meat decomposed underground - is a delicacy in some Icelandic cultures, but to many outsiders the idea of eating it is repugnant.
How much does getting used to something affect how gross you find it? Consider deliberately sticking your face into someone's stinky sneakers; as Herz found at the National Rotten Sneakers Contest she judged, doing so is not nearly so revolting if you are given time to prepare.
Herz tours many sources of visceral disgust, but it's when this merges with moral outrage that things get interesting. Though she occasionally draws some tenuous conclusions, most of her points unearth the contradictory nature of disgust. For example, donning a dry-cleaned sweater once owned by Adolf Hitler won't confer any evil personality traits, but you would struggle to find people willing to wear it.
Most alarming, though, is when our tendency toward disease avoidance is conflated with moral repugnance. Herz points out that during the Holocaust and the Rwandan Tutsi massacre in 1994, the victims were cast as disease-ridden vermin. "The 'final solution' is frighteningly simple," Herz writes. "If you want to make a group despicable and justify murdering them, equate them with disease and disgust."
It's a powerful point that leaves you contemplating how your own sense of disgust may be manipulated, or even overcome.

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