How Disgust Could Lead to a Cleaner, Healthier World

CC BY 2.0. John Tann

Disgust is a powerful human emotion that could be utilized to promote better hygiene and nutrition, but unfortunately humans are too disgusted to take it seriously.

Disgust is a powerful human emotion. It takes root between the ages of 2 and 5 years, and once established, is very difficult to get rid of. In a fascinating long-read article for The Guardian called “This article will make you want to wash your hands,” food writer Bee Wilson delves into the icky world of disgust to see how we could utilize the power of this emotion to promote better hygiene and nutrition; but her research also shows why people are not inclined to do so.

There are a few theories as to how disgust evolved in humans. One theory, put forth by Valerie Curtis, director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Tropical Medicine, is that it’s a way to prevent potential infection. After all, many of the things that provoke the most disgust are carriers of parasites or disease, such as blood, pus, hair, animals, snot, insects, and dirt.

American psychologist Paul Rozin disagrees. He sees it as a disturbing reminder of how close we are to animals. As Wilson writes, a key element of disgust is contagion:

“Almost all disgusting food is of animal origin,” Rozin has said. “A basic feature of disgusting foods is that if they contact an otherwise desirable food, they render it inedible.”

Imagine a cockroach that’s in a glass of orange juice, then taken out. Most adults wouldn’t touch that juice, even if they knew the cockroach was sterile. Replace the juice with a different beverage and most adults wouldn’t want to use the same glass because it’s perceived as contaminated.

Wilson believes that disgust could (and should) be used to promote better hygiene habits in Britain, where she’s from, and elsewhere. She argues that people are not disgusted enough about things that they should be, such as not washing their hands after using the bathroom. This is the single easiest way to reduce rates of gastrointestinal illnesses, yet a shocking number of Brits don’t do it.

“A third of cases of gastrointestinal illness could be prevented through observing basic hand hygiene... Food poisoning – most of it caused by faecal bacteria from unwashed hands – costs the UK economy nearly £1.5bn a year. A 2003 study found that Britons suffer to a greater extent from traveller’s diarrhoea than Americans, Australians or Europeans.”

Studies have shown that when disgust is employed by public health campaigns in the form of repulsive images, it is far more effective at changing behaviors.

“In 2007, researchers in Sydney placed some graphic posters in two washrooms, depicting a long bread roll filled with feces. These revolting images were placed above the sinks and in the cubicles. Over a six-week period, the washrooms decorated with excrement sandwiches got through more soap and paper towels than a couple of control washrooms featuring posters showing clean hands and a bland informative message about disease prevention.”

The same tactic could be used to encourage people to eat less meat – an issue that greatly concerns environmentalists, animal welfare advocates, and health professionals. Indeed, Wilson reminds us of Jamie Oliver’s infamous ‘pink slime’ demonstration, in which he showed school children how chicken nuggets are made and generated such disgust that UK schools adopted more rigorous meal standards.

Campaigns focused on disgust could get people to wash their hands after preparing raw poultry to reduce the incidence of infection by campylobacter, a nasty bacterium found on 79 percent of industrially farmed chicken sold in the UK. This is something the UK’s Food Standards Agency has attempted to do with ‘soft’, ineffective campaigns. Wilson suggests a “hard-hitting campaign linking explicit imagery of bloody diarrhea with undercooked barbecued drumsticks,” but explains why the food industry would never let it happen:

“There are a lot of vested interests in the modern world, working to keep our disgust levels for certain things low. Supermarkets sell meat adorned with bucolic cows and sheep from prettily named farms, to stop us from thinking of the slaughterhouse. Adverts for female sanitary products show us innocuous blue liquid, nothing that threatens to make us think of menstrual blood.”

It’s time we gave more thought to our disgust, challenging the inconsistencies (such as meat-eaters who are comfortable eating flesh, but not offal and blood, or insects) and the things that should disgust us more (like junk food and industrially farmed meat). Despite the squeamishness and the discomfort it causes, Wilson’s article urges you to push your disgust into the spotlight for a brief time. You may be surprised by what you find.