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Each week on Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explore different aspects of human behavior and the brain.

Why We Should Question What We Find Gross

Our sensory systems are pretty smart. Typically we like things that are going to be good for us to ingest, and dislike things that are going to be bad for us to ingest. Pretty simple right? Not so much!

In this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markmanand Dr. Bob Duke talk about benefit of the disgust reaction, and how we as human beings co-opt that system and use it more conceptually than it what it’s meant for. Therefore disgust has come to have a moral dimension to it.

There are wide differences among people as to what they find disgusting and not, and a lot of it is linked to the associations they have to the object and ideas.

If an enormous human being pulled a sweaty shirt off his back and threw it to you, is your first reaction gonna be to grin from ear to ear?

Markman points to the work ofPaul Rozin, from The University of Pennsylvania. Rozin’s work demonstrates that humans bring a lot of baggage with them when it comes to things they’ll put in their mouths. Even when, say a piece of sanitized plastic is shaped like a cockroach, we are less like to put that in our mouths as opposed to just a brown piece of plastic with no other symbolic meaning associated with it.

This shows that our disgust response is not one of rationality, but rather one that taps into many memories and associations we might not even think consider.

The idea of contagion can do the same thing to turn on or off our disgust responses. Markman points to an example of this from a 1979 Coca-Cola commercial, with Mean Joe Green, where a small boy is overjoyed when Green tosses him his sweaty jersey after a game.

One might think, “Nasty! I don’t want to touch that gross old smelly thing!” But not this little beaming fan. The sweat from the jersey is overshadowed by it’s association with the player.

There are all sorts of things that people can't really shut off.

The long and the short of it is that we tend to think that our moral judgments are separate from our physical reactions, we believe we react with disgust to something’s because of various religious or social complex belief systems.

In actuality our reactions are tied to millennia of evolution that took place in a very different space in which we live today. It might benefit us to take a step back from things we might find disgusting, and try to dig into a more slow process of understanding before we turn up our noses.

Rebecca McInroy is an award-winning show creator, host, and executive producer for KUT, KUTX, and KUT.ORG.
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