Live chat with psychologist Philip Powell

Adriaen Brouwer's The Bitter Tonic, depicting a man's response of disgust to a beverage

Adriaen Brouwer’s The Bitter Tonic, depicting a man’s response of disgust to a beverage

This is the write-up from our 16th live chat with Philip Powell, a research psychologist that specialises in emotion. He is currently working on a research project on empathy, but his particular expertise in the disgust response. While much of his past work has focused on its relationship with mental health, he recently worked up a proposal on overcoming the “yuck factor” associated with certain forms of sustainable consumption. Reusable nappies are one example of where a perceived “yuck factor” may play a big role in whether people chose to use them, so we asked Philip to join us for one of our live chats to talk about this (and much more, as you’ll see from the write-up below!)

Q: I can see how disgust plays a part in our relationship with nappies – after all, none of us love putting our hands in poo – but why do some people choose to use reusable nappies anyway, and some don’t?
Philip: the answer to this question is complex as it deals with the “yuck factor” at many different levels. First of all, there are measurable differences in our trait proneness to be disgusted by things. So different people tend to be more or less prone to feeling the sense of disgust. Secondly, there are individual differences in the way we negatively appraise our disgust responses, or basically how bothered we are about feeling disgusted. We measure both these traits using validated questionnaires which correlate with behavioural measures that we obtain in the lab (by getting people to engage with disgusting things!). Another thing to consider is that, although typically these differences are at trait level, they are not fundamentally fixed and can be altered with training and exposure to the object of disgust. So, a parent who is initially put off by changing nappies and handling poo can, with time, get used to it as the “yuck response” decreases. Sewer workers are another good example of habituation, or medical students before and after a dissection course.

Q: Does getting used to dissecting cadavers also make you less disgusted by other things (like poo)? Or do the two domains remain separate and don’t affect each other?
Philip: There isn’t a huge amount of work on this, but the few studies that have been done show domain-specific changes. It matters, of course, how you slice up the domains (there are a number of classifications of different sets of disgusting things!). in terms of an evolutionary framework, the domain/context-specific changes would make sense I suppose.

Q: Is there any connection between people who have taken on another caring role and those who use cloth nappies? For example I used to foster kittens and so the whole disgusting part of nappies doesn’t bother me because of cleaning up kitten poo for years.
Philip: Good question and yes, I would expect that there is an association – see stuff above about habituation to disgusting things as an example.

Q: So you’re basically saying that if you can cope with one thing that initially would have disgusted you- such as litter trays – then related things such as nappies or poo in general would also seem less disgusting?
Philip: I think there would be some overlap dependent on the similarity between the two (potentially) disgusting objects. One popular approach in therapy for phobias is to use a graded hierarchy of exposure (e.g., if you’re scared of spiders, you start by looking at photos of them before getting physically close to one). Something like that may work for disgust exposure too..

Q: Where does the yuck factor originate from? I am guessing that we have evolved to feel repelled by the things that could hurt us (gone off food, parasites, bodily fluids etc..), but do you think that nowadays we have somehow pushed our yuck response in overdrive and feel repelled by things we shouldn’t feel repelled by?
Philip: You’re exactly right. Disgust’s primary purpose is to help us avoid the risk of disease (it’s part of a “behavioural immune system”). However it then expanded through “exaptation” (which is when one evolutionary tool started being used for another purpose) to motivate us to socially condemn other things, such as sociomoral transgressions. Our disgust reactions, like all other evolved systems, are overly conservative, they would rather assume something is bad for us and be wrong, than assume it is innocuous and then be wrong! This, and the fact that disgust is particularly “unreasoned” (people can’t rationalise it as well) compared to other emotions like anger, and possible to be induced by association, can make it problematic in contexts such as this.

Q: When you say ‘domain-specific ‘, what does that mean?
Philip: I’m using it to describe a set of things that elicit disgust that have something in common. For example, one influential model of disgust has four domains: a) “core” (body waste products, certain animals/foods); “animal-nature” (death, wounds, hygiene, atypical sex acts); “interpersonal” (for other people); and “sociomoral”. it’s not uncontested though!

Q: I have to say those categories seem a bit arbitrary, what have atypical sex acts got to do with death and wounds?
Philip: Very astute! The “animal-nature” category has been contested and I am not a particular fan of it. I came about because certain things that remind of us that we are just part of the animal kingdom tend to also disgust us, so it is socioculturally influenced quite a lot. an alternative model distinguishes “pathogen-relate d” (something that can make us ill) and “sexual” disgust (incest, unfavourable mates etc.) for categories.

Q: I am interested in the distinction between biological and cultural forms of disgust. From what you said, I guess that “core” and “animal” are mainly biological/evolutionary types of disgust, whereas “interpersonal” and “sociomoral” are more cultural? And going back to nappies and your own child’s bodily fluids, where do you think that type of disgust sits mainly?
Philip: As always, there is a bit of an argument about nature and nurture. Disgust is highly socioculturally determined for certain things, and very universal for certain other elicitors (e.g., poo). The “animal-nature” bit that I mentioned earlier is a sociocultural grouping, but it contains things that are universally disgusting. It’s a trade-off between different evolutionary systems. If disgust had its way then we would never interact with body fluids (or have sex), and there is work demonstrating that sexual arousal (or any form of arousal) reduces the disgust response. So poo is poo, and it’s universally disgusting, but we have to deal with our child’s poo, so we find a way around it. On that point, hunger also reduces disgust towards food, so it’s competing systems across the board.

Q: I can see that real hunger would reduce your disgust of foods – because you would eat anything! But I’m surprised that any sort of arousal reduces disgust.
Philip: Yes, and taking it to its grizzly extremes, this also explains why people are able to engage in survival cannibalism.

Q: Does being hungry also reduce other sorts of disgust? Would changing a nappy be less bothersome if you are hungry?
Philip: I don’t know, but it’s a brilliant idea to test. Are people less or more amoral (to disgust-related scenarios) when they’re hungry? Sounds like we’ve got ourselves an experiment.

Q: And if it’s transferable like that, do reusable nappy users have a more adventurous sex life? I see marketing opportunities there. “Spice up your love life, switch to cloth”
Philip: Haha, I think these are some great ideas!

Q: Being disgusted by the idea of sex with someone you find unattractive makes sense to me. Being disgusted by coercive sex likewise. But why are some people disgusted by homosexuality, or other consensual activities?
Philip: There is a lot of research on disgust and morality and/or political affiliations. Initial work proposed that conservatives were more easily disgusted by these things, but then it’s the chicken and egg question. Some further work found that liberals were better at regulating their disgust experiences than conservatives (broad generalisations of course). It’s largely your upbringing that has the most influence, people in the Netherlands are less disgusted by those same things than people in the US, for example. But disgust is used as an unreasoned/gut justification for opposition to those kind of things, and this is why it can be problematic. Try to get people to think of a reasonable opposition to homosexuality? Impossible.

Q: So perhaps in the case of homosexuality, disgust is being used as a gut justification for a moral/cultural opposition?
Philip: Exactly right, and that is part of the problem. It is also used as gut opposition to innovations in bioscience and other fields. An American conservative chap called Leon Kass wrote influentially on the “wisdom of repugnance”, which if you understand where disgust came from and what it does, is obvious that it is just b*llcks. On this topic, there is a good TED talk you can watch here.

Q: Since a lot of your work has been directed at sustainability practices (sewage water purification etc…), which links back to cloth nappies, do you think that we should try to overcome certain types of disgust that get in the way of safeguarding the environment? And if so, how can we do that if we have such little control over it?
Philip: Yes, I think there is potential for learning about and overcoming disgust as an “unreasoned” barrier to sustainable behaviours. The approach, however, will probably have to be with industry/advocacy groups etc., rather than individuals themselves (although making them more aware of their irrational disgust responses may be helpful). We can give people the tools to try and regulate and re-appraise their own disgust responses (e.g., get them really hungry!), or we can change the way we market and promote things that make them less disgusting to people (people are more likely to drink “eco water” than “recycled waste-water”). I think psychological science has a task of trying to find out what are the best ways to regulate disgust in sustainable scenarios and others, such as the ones we have touched on today (morality, health, politics etc.)

Q: Might people who use cloth nappies also have less clean homes?
Philip: Yes, it’s conceivable. I think there is certainly an extreme where disgust may lead us toward an overly clinical and sterile lifestyle, which is then damaging in the long run. On this point, disgust is being used as a tool in campaigns to encourage hand-washing in certain countries where it is not common, which is obviously a good thing. But then advertisements in the UK manipulate the same thing to make us buy their cleaning products. The societal preference for clean, packaged foods, rather than dirty, misshapen produce, is an example of excessive, unnecessary resource consumption.

Thank you Philip for this interesting chat, we went slightly off-topic from nappies at one point, but it made it even more fascinating to see the connection between morality, social behaviours, and nappies! Lots of food for thought and a great link to a Ted talk. Thanks again!
Philip: Thanks for hosting this, it’s been fantastic, and has helped me think through some ideas!

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