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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

COMMITMENTS : Disgust --It Even Sounds Repulsive

August 07, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A cockroach is floating in your orange juice. A friend mentions that she changes her underwear just once a week. You accidentally touch the ashes of a cremated body.

Is your stomach turning yet?

The uniquely human condition of disgust is what drives researchers Paul Rozin, Clark McCauley and Jonathan Haidt.

"Disgust is a universal emotion," said McCauley, a professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "It's a powerful form of socialization that goes beyond reason. It's found in every society worldwide, from the wilds of New Guinea to here."

Charles Darwin defined disgust as "something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste . . . secondarily, to anything that causes a similar feeling through the sense of smell, touch, and even eyesight."

Even the word disgust means distaste , and the face we instinctively make--gaping mouth, pinched nose, gagging--is the body's preparation to jettison something vile from the mouth.

From this biological defense against eating contaminated food or waste products that could kill us, disgust has evolved to include social and moral violations, McCauley said. But what constitutes a heinous enough moral violation differs so much in our heterogeneous society that researchers were unable to find patterns.

Still, a University of Pennsylvania study, in which students and working-class people rated a variety of gag-me scenarios, did reveal that women tend to be much more easily disgusted than men. They are also more repulsed by "body products" (a no-brainer for any woman who ever cohabited with a man).

Both genders were more disgusted by violations of sexual norms--such as incest or bestiality--than by other moral violations, such as ambulance chasing.

Unexpectedly, people who were most disgusted by such examples as body fluids, picking up a dead cat, walking in a graveyard and touching the ashes of a cremated body were the same people who were most disgusted by the idea of drinking spoiled milk or eating monkey meat. In cases like these, our disgust reflects a subconscious fear of death and discomfort with our animal nature.

Ernest Becker, a German philosopher, argued in his 1973 book "Denial of Death" (Free Press) that the fear of death haunts and shapes human social and cultural practices.

"What disgusts is what reminds us of our animality," McCauley said. That helps explain why surgeries and death are managed in sterile, abstract ways; why we compulsively deodorize, and why sex in public makes us squeamish.

"Disgust is the emotion that guards us from having to think about the fact that we are animals and that, like that squirrel we ran over on the way to work today, we are going to die. We're the only animals that know we will die. We must repress that knowledge or we'd go insane."

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