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Monday, 1 March 2021

Is disgust holding us back?

Disgust has its rightful place in our evolutionary development, but it could be a significant deterrent to moving forward, this Freakonomics Radio podcast suggests (listen, runtime 48:51). It can sometimes be a useful deterrent when we’re confronted with global pandemics. But in many cases what we classify as gross is socially constructed and largely harmless.

First things first: Why do humans feel disgust? The reason we feel disgust partially comes from an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us from getting close to things that might make us sick like parasites or rotting food. But disgust is now so much more than that, thanks to social constructs and conditioning: We harbor certain disgusts for just about everything from foods to “atypical” human appearance.

The impenetrable force of yuck: The problem with disgust is that it creates a barrier to adopting certain lifestyle changes that may be necessary to confronting major problems like climate change. Getting people to eat insect protein (yes, we’re talking about bugs here) is one of the simplest ways to reduce our carbon footprint, yet it is met with the most resistance.

Global water scarcity could also be partially solved by getting people to drink recycled water — sewage water that is purified by going through a membrane that only allows water to pass through. But the disgust factor holds us back: Even though it’s pure and a “very efficient way” of providing water, especially in times of scarcity, “people are disgusted by it because they know it was in contact with feces.”

Get over your squeamishness and prepare for a bowl of grasshopper guacamole or some fresh sewage water: Although it may be hard to get people to change old habits, especially when it comes to what they find disgusting, repeated exposure has shown capable of taming human perceptions of what was once absolutely appalling. “If you drink recycled water for a while — not too long, just maybe a week — you won’t even think about it anymore. The problem is getting over the disgust hump.”

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