As humans, we all experience a range of emotions: Anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust. Fear and disgust are dominant emotional drivers. And you can thank your ancestors for that. Research suggests that we have evolved an “ingrained cognitive response” to things that we perceive as threatening (like spiders and snakes) so that we may survive as a human species.
A personal anecdote
I was involved in a serious car accident in 1986. It was what is referred to as a ‘miss and run’. There were devastating losses (I won’t get into the tragic details). It’s been almost thirty years (29 years ago today, actually) and while some things were quickly lost in the haze of shock or eventually blurred by time, certain images still lucidly dance across my mind.
Like The Closer You Get…it’s the title track from Alabama’s 7th studio album of the same name. It was playing on cassette in the truck stereo. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, those beloved classic harmonies were like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Can you please turn the music off?” I asked. An attending RCMP officer obliged, reaching past me through the passenger window to switch off the stereo.
The fear that we felt before and after impact was palpable. Actually, fear became a regular, unwelcome guest in my life. It took several months (dare I say, years) before I could travel down that stretch of highway without experiencing anxiety. Similarly, it was a long time before I could listen to that Alabama song without my stomach turning inside out. For me, Highway #7 and that ill-fated song had become synonymous with pain, loss and suffering.
The twin responses of fear and disgust are often intertwined
Fear drivers fall along a continuum. There are immediate and tangible fears; ones that come with real risks. For example, you are caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or in a flood, or you are at risk of drowning because you overturned your canoe and you don’t have a lifejacket on, or you are skidding on black ice into oncoming traffic on a very busy highway. There are other fears, though, that we experience; those are often perceived as less-than-rational. Things like the fear of needles, of spiders and snakes (see above), of heights or even the fears of leaving your own home. Some fears can be socially debilitating.
Disgust is slightly different but still related. It is the very human response to something we may view as unpleasant or vile in our environment. The ‘contamination-avoidance’ mechanism that kicks in to help us make decisions about something. I had a good friend that loved the name Paris but, in disgust, refused to name her baby daughter that because of what she viewed as Paris Hilton’s highly public, immoral foibles. She couldn’t separate the name Paris from the actions of the celebrity persona. That’s anecdotal, but the human response phenomenon has been studied by scholars too. For example, psychologist Paul Rozin conducted a study that included 50 respondents where he discovered, among other things, that people will outwardly and immediately reject delicious, tasty brownies if they are presented in the shape of something unpalatable, like dog feces (imagine that).
Fear and disgust are not only experientially-based, they can be triggered and spread via the power of the Internet and social media. For example, James McWilliams outlines how the rhetoric of disgust can undermine our food choices. In a recent interview by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post, Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University Prof and author of The Gluten Lie, is quoted as saying: “…[S]preading fear, before we actually know the truth, endangers society…” We have to take care to tread carefully through those provocative headlines, stories and blogs.
Our emotional responses shape our opinions and beliefs. Our opinions and beliefs are reinforced through our personal networks and once stuff gets stuck in our psyche, it’s pretty hard to displace it. Paul Rozin et al (1986) refer to the laws of contagion and similarity, where 1) contagion is qualified as “once in contact, always in contact”), and; 2) similarity holds that “the image equals the object”. There’s an enduring ‘stickiness’ to images and ideas that are synonymous with our emotional responses. That’s why the word Frankenfood (and the associated images) has been so pervasive in how we view GM foods. And why people object more to GM food than to GMOs developed for other applications (such as insulin in the treatment of diabetes) (Blancke et al 2015).
The closer you get…
There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.
My contempt for the ‘phantom driver’ (Mr. ‘miss and hit’ Guy), on the other hand, existed more on the moral plane. (Please note, my ill-will towards this faceless and nameless individual eventually faded over the years — forgiveness and passage of time are beautiful things, no?)
My fears, at the time, were very present, very real (to me) and also very debilitating. It took a great deal of healing and time before those emotional responses no longer overwhelmed or defined me. Fear and disgust are provoked when we perceive a threat from something. Each emotion can lead us down a different response path. While fear primes us to run (‘flight’), disgust readies us to evade something that repulses us. Distinguishing real risk from manufactured or perceived risk requires critical thought. We need to give some time and thought to rationally consider what the real risks of a given situation are. In the end, it’s all about quality of life.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
– Marcus Aurelius –
Blancke, Steffan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu (2015/in press). “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science.
Levinovitz, Alan. (2015 forthcoming). The Gluten Lie.
New, Joshua J. and Tamsin C. German. (2015). “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness.” Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 36, Issue 3. Pps: 165-173.
Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008). “Disgust: The body and soul emotion in the 21st century.” In D. McKay & O. Olatunji (eds.), Disgust and its disorders. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Pps: 9-29.
Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. (1986). “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 50, No. 4. Pps: 703-712.