The curious experiments of Dr Disgust

In the words of WKRP sales legend Herb Tarlek, tacky sells.

So does disgust.

ghostbusters.psych(A reason it’s called barblog?)

In North Carolina, there’s a company that manufactures bottles of an artificial fart spray called Liquid Ass™. The makers (who call themselves Assman #1 and Assman #2) are clearly proud of their product, writing lyrically on their website of its “genuine, foul butt-crack smell with hints of dead animal and fresh poo”.

The site also features user testimonials, mostly along the lines of “I sprayed this stuff all over a friend’s car, then laughed myself silly as he tried to work out where the stench came from”.

What the website fails to mention, however, is the vital role these little bottles of nastiness are playing in the cutting-edge experiments conducted, in perfect seriousness, by Auckland University psychology researchers.

Over the past few years, a team has been luring experimental subjects into a small room on the 12th floor of a building in Auckland City Hospital, putting them into a state of mild disgust with a covertly deployed dose of Liquid Ass (which, despite the stench, is non-toxic), then running a battery of psychological tests.

Other adventures facing the subjects included being handed a bag that looked like it may once have contained excrement.

It’s tempting to think that this proves little more than the popular hypothesis that psychologists are sadistic weirdos, but in fact these experiments are yielding powerful liquidAssinsights into the nature of human emotions.

More practically, they are providing clues for how to deal with some of the most intractable problems facing modern healthcare.

The man behind these experiments is Associate Professor Dr Nathan Consedine, director of the health psychology programme in the Department of Psychological Medicine.

He’s 42, has a skinny moustache vaguely reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s, and has been studying emotions and their role in healthcare throughout a career that began in Christchurch and has included long stints at Columbia University and Long Island University in New York.

It was only in 2009, though, after returning to New Zealand, that Consedine started paying close attention to the significance of one emotion in particular: disgust. It is, says Consedine, the “elephant in the room” when it comes to healthcare.

Sick sells; gross ads disgust consumers into action

Science is only now catching up with the late 1970s wisdom of Herbert “Herb” Ruggles Tarlek, Jr.

During one episode, Herb, the outrageously dressed salesthingy on the awesome television series, WKRP in Cincinnati, proclaims that tasteless sells. That’s why he’s so good at advertising.

USA Today reports a five-year study to be released Tuesday by Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business found that, again and again, advertisements that try to simply "scare" consumers into actions — such as buying protective sunscreens or avoiding dangerous drugs — are far less effective than ads that also "disgust" consumers into taking the action. The best way to elicit disgust: Display totally gross images (see our infosheets).

"If you really want to get people to act, disgust is much more powerful than fear," says Andrea Morales, an associate marketing professor at Arizona State University who oversaw the study to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. "It may seem counterintuitive, but it works."

Perhaps that’s why consumers have seen a recent slew of commercials with high gross-out factors.

A TV spot from the New York City Department of Health featured images of a soft drink turning into gobs of fat as a guy gulps it down. (Department officials say sugar-rich beverage consumption dropped 12% after the campaign.) A recent Febreze TV spot shows blindfolded volunteers sitting in an ultra-filthy room — but fooled into thinking that they smell something pleasant, thanks to the household odor killer. And a commercial for Colgate Total toothpaste shows a mouthful of icky-looking germs.

From 2006 to 2011, Morales and her colleagues oversaw five different studies. In each case, ads with the highest gross-out factor elicited far more cases of viewer willingness to take action than those without.

In one study, 155 undergraduate students viewed an anti-methamphetamine print ad showing a young man whose face is covered with open sores. It scored far more consumer interest than an ad with the same written copy, but which replaced the photo of the pock-marked young man with one of a coffin.

While consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow agrees with the premise — disgust attracts attention — she’s not sure it always works. "Disgust is a hard-wired self-preservation emotion designed to keep us from doing things like eating spoiled food," she says. But, she asks, "Will our protective reaction against assaults of any kind cause us to avoid paying any attention to the ad?"

Disgust: always the other emotion now hot; would you rather talk about poop or make kids die

James Gorman of the New York Times writes that disgust is having its moment in the light as researchers find that it does more than cause that sick feeling in the stomach. It protects human beings from disease and parasites, and affects almost every aspect of human relations, from romance to politics.

In several new books and a steady stream of research papers, scientists are exploring the evolution of disgust and its role in attitudes toward food, sexuality and other people.

Paul Rozin, a psychologist who is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer of modern disgust research, began researching it with a few collaborators in the 1980s, when disgust was far from the mainstream.

“It was always the other emotion,” he said. “Now it’s hot.”

Speaking last week from a conference on disgust in Germany, Valerie Curtis, a self-described “disgustologist” from the London School of Public Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described her favorite emotion as “incredibly important.”

She continued: “It’s in our everyday life. It determines our hygiene behaviors. It determines how close we get to people. It determines who we’re going to kiss, who we’re going to mate with, who we’re going to sit next to. It determines the people that we shun, and that is something that we do a lot of.”

It begins early, she said: “Kids in the playground accuse other kids of having cooties. And it works, and people feel shame when disgust is turned on them.”

Dr. Curtis is involved in efforts in Africa, India and England to explore what she calls “the power of trying to gross people out.” One slogan that appeared to be effective in England in getting people to wash their hands before leaving a bathroom was “Don’t bring the toilet with you.”

Whatever the fine points of disgust, its power to affect behavior is unquestioned, and that power ought to be put to good use, Dr. Curtis said. So, in one of her projects, she has worked with an Indian public relations agency to come up with a disgust-based campaign to encourage hand washing among mothers in small villages, which could save countless children’s lives lost to diarrhea and other diseases.

The result, now being tested, is a skit involving two characters, one a supermom and the other a disgusting, dirty man. The man makes sweets using mud and worms, stops in the middle of the performance to rush off because he has diarrhea, never washes his hands and does everything possible to be revolting.

Supermom is scrupulously clean. Her children don’t get sick, the skit makes clear. In fact, her baby grows up to be a doctor. She washes her hands all the time.

The prominence of diarrhea in the skit is no accident. One thing about studying disgust, Dr. Curtis said, is that it makes you realize how important it is to talk about the very things that disgust us, because they often present dangers to public health.

“We need to talk about” excrement, she said, using a punchier single-syllable word for maximum effect — a word she is unapologetic about using, as befits a disgustologist.

“Which is worse?” Dr. Curtis asked. To talk about it, “or to make kids die.

Shock and shame.

We’ve been using disgust for a long time. It is called barfblog.

Like watching South Park: why feeling disgust can be good (or fart jokes)

Feelings of disgust help humans avoid, or at the very least recognize, the things that cause disgust like sick people, dirty water, vomit, body fluids and all the other stuff that makes us react "Yuck."

BBC News reports that in a paper published in Philosophical Transactions for the Royal Society B, Dr Val Curtis, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argues that avoidance behavior is essential to prevent the spread of all the major current and recent infectious diseases which present a threat to humans.

Washing hands and food can prevent diseases like cholera and hepatitis A, avoiding sex with others who are infected helps prevent the spread of HIV, while keeping a distance from people with influenza or measles is a sensible move to reduce the risk of infection.

"The idea of contacting or consuming infectious substances such as saliva, feces or vomit, or of intimate contact with those known to be carrying infection is deeply uncomfortable to even contemplate," writes Dr Curtis.

"Self-limitation of such behaviour is so automatic and intuitive that it is often ignored as the front-line in our defense against disease.

Something as simple as handwashing with soap could save over a million lives a year globally, the paper says, just by stopping the transmission of disease.

Disgust is often used to get this message across in public health campaigns.

Stephen Fry, who has declared himself celibate in the past, is quoted in Dr Curtis’s paper describing how disgust played a part in his decision to abstain from sex.

"I would be greatly in the debt of the man who could tell me what would ever be appealing about those damp, dark, foul-smelling and revoltingly tufted areas of the body that constitute the main dishes in the banquet of love.

"Once under the influence of drugs supplied by one’s own body, there is no limit to the indignities, indecencies and bestialities to which the most usually rational and graceful of us will sink."

Why disgust matters
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 366, no. 1583, 3478-3490
Valerie Curtis
The new synthesis about disgust is that it is a system that evolved to motivate infectious disease avoidance. There are vital practical and intellectual reasons why we need to understand disgust better. Practically, disgust can be harnessed to combat the behavioural causes of infectious and chronic disease such as diarrhoeal disease, pandemic flu and smoking. Disgust is also a source of much human suffering; it plays an underappreciated role in anxieties and phobias such as obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobia and post-traumatic stress syndromes; it is a hidden cost of many occupations such as caring for the sick and dealing with wastes, and self-directed disgust afflicts the lives of many, such as the obese and fistula patients. Disgust is used and abused in society, being both a force for social cohesion and a cause of prejudice and stigmatization of out-groups. This paper argues that a better understanding of disgust, using the new synthesis, offers practical lessons that can enhance human flourishing. Disgust also provides a model system for the study of emotion, one of the most important issues facing the brain and behavioural sciences today.