October 27, 2010

Something Stinks

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Earlier this year renowned Manhattan chef and restauranteur Daniel Angerer began making – and – serving  cheese made from his wife’s breast milk. One reviewer describes the texture as, “strangely soft [and] bouncy, like panna cotta.” Ew.

Before you can even reason through the bizarreness of breast milk-based cheese, your face likely curls into a distinctive expression: disgust. Disgust is considered one of the basic emotions along with fear, anger, happiness, sadness and surprise. However unlike some of its more socially-oriented counterparts, disgust reactions – like reading about the texture of breast milk cheese – are more like reflexes. Disgust causes a unique facial expression and a physiological reaction whereby heart rate initially rises, then plummets. Psychology professor Jeffrey Lohr explains that  fear causes a “get me away from that” arousal reaction, while disgusts manifests as “get that away from me.”

While certain things like human feces and rancid meat cause universal disgust reactions, other disgust elicitors are culturally specific or even individual. “Earthlamb” (don’t be fooled: it’s really dog) might be a delicacy in parts of China, but the thought of raising your puppy, Buddy, only to eat him with a side of sautéed spinach is likely enough to make you nauseous. Individual reactions include our personal feelings of disgust to certain words – like “moisture” or “placenta,” which make some people cringe.

Although a seemingly endless number of things can make you feel disgusted, there are two distinct experiences that “turn off” your disgust reactions: Love and lust. Although your own daughter’s dirty diaper is completely tolerable, the heavy and wet diaper of a random child is repulsive. This is largely attributable to your love for your daughter, which seems to override your basic disgust reactions.

Most evolutionary psychologists believe that disgust was initially advantageous because it caused strong avoidance responses when people were confronted with poisonous substances, like rotten meat. Yet today we use the same term to describe heinous behavior, like the acts of Hitler. We even extend the term to describe people who have committed acts deemed socially unacceptable (“Bernie Madoff is a disgusting human being.”)

Moral psychologists, including Cornell’s own David Pizarro, are particularly fascinated with the nature of our disgust reactions and the moral judgments that they might be affecting. Using a test called the Disgust Sensitivity Scale, researchers use questions like, “How disgusting do you find it when you see a bowel movement in an unflushed toilet?” and, “How disgusted would you be if you were walking barefoot on concrete and you stepped on an earthworm?” to determine an individual’s overall disgust sensitivity. University of Pennsylvania Professor Paul Rozin conducted a real-life version of disgust sensitivity by asking people to drink from a cup with a sterilized cockroach in the bottom and to eat chocolate that precisely resembled dog poop.

While your personal disgust-factor might only be of anecdotal interest, the implications of current research using the scale are far-reaching, extending beyond psychology academia. Professor Pizarro’s recently published findings report a legitimate link between disgust and political leanings. Pizarro and his colleagues found that all else being equal, conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. So, it seems that your sensitivity to disgust might actually relate to your political affiliation. Perhaps even more interesting (and controversial), two specific mediating variables explained this link: Abortion and gay marriage.

Most people are quick to justify their views on abortion and gay marriage with careful reasoning or religious justifications, but basic visceral reactions might actually be playing a fundamental role in creating these more “conservative” moral judgments. Dr. Pizarro’s research suggests that the correlation link between your likelihood of being disgusted and your views on abortion and gay marriage in turn plays a substantial role in determining your political affiliation.

Moral psychologists are trying to answer basic questions concerning whether or not “core” reflex-like disgust and social disgust are actually the same emotion, and if core disgust is really what we experience with morality. Based on Pizarro’s recently published findings, these questions are likely to hit the public radar in the upcoming year.

In fact, Sunday’s edition of The New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Dr. Pizarro and his colleague Peter Liberman. The researchers were commenting on the recent mailing of thousands of campaign ads, “impregnated with the smell of rotting garbage,” which were printed with the message “Something stinks in Albany.” The ads were an attack on Rick Lazio and were sent by Carl Paladino’s campaign days before New York’s Republican gubernatorial primary. The campaign plays on natural inclinations for repulsive smells to link with our disgust reactions, not so discreetly attempting to connect disgust with Paladino’s rival. In their Op-Ed piece, Pizarro and Liberman suggest that the disgusting ads may have lead to impressions which, “endured long after the odor and feelings of disgust had dissipated.” Indeed the campaign may have been effective, but Pizarro and Liberman are not letting the politician’s sly tactics go without explanation.

Whether you’re disgusted with Paladino’s campaign or you admire his innovation, the reality is that our disgust reactions are real and have legitimate effects on judgments. So, check your moral – and political – judgments against your disgust reactions. And if you know you’re high on the sensitivity scale, you might want to avoid the bowl of bloody eyeballs (peeled grapes) at Halloween parties this weekend.

Original Author: Emily Weinstein