The Defense Of Disgust

A few years ago, my brother and I went to Four Belly restaurant in Lakeview to dine on some delicious Asian street food. We ordered caterpillars, squid, frog legs, and octopus balls (Takoyaki). When our waitress brought out the food I surveyed the spread curiously.

After a moment of hesitation and a period of reflection in which I asked myself why we had decided to come here, I dug in. I sampled all four dishes and decided that the squid and frog legs weren’t so bad, but I could not convince myself that the octopus balls and caterpillars were any good; they were gross.

Still, I found myself munching on the caterpillars as if they were a bowl of mixed nuts at the bar, concluding with confidence that what they lacked in flavor they made up for in nutritional value, and so, I might as well get my fill.

Of course, many people love these foods, which are delicacies, even staples, of Japanese and Vietnamese diets. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed any of them, or that I would ever seek them out on a menu if I found myself unusually hungry.

We were trying them for the novelty of it, the pleasure of feeling rebellious, along with the satisfaction in seeing various expressions of disgust on friends’ faces afterwards. My grandmother was flabbergasted (“You’ve got to be kidding”) and then repulsed (“Oh, yuck!”)

On a recent episode of Hidden Brain called “Crickets and Cannibals: Unpacking the Complicated Emotion of Disgust”, Shankar Vedantam examines this interesting emotion with psychologist Rachel Herz.

Disgust is an instinct that is learned, according to Herz. ‘Young children aren’t good at recognizing “disgust” faces. In fact, they often mistake the face of disgust with the face of anger.’ In one wildly contradictory experiment, babies exhibited pleasant facial features when they were exposed to typically unpleasant odors—vomit and dirty socks—only to then turn up their noses when presented with a popularly pleasant smell like vanilla.

Not only is disgust a learned instinct, it may also be a luxury. We live in a society where we can eat what we want pretty much whenever we want. A society where eating “exotic” or “extreme” foods is defined more by decadence than by necessity. Many people, of course, don’t have this option. If I were truly famished, I’m sure I would look much more fondly upon a bowl of octopus balls.

The emotion of disgust obviously varies among people and cultures, and our revulsion to things (and people) is relative. For instance, when survival is at stake, the moral opprobrium we feel toward certain actions may shift significantly on our scale of ethical behavior. We might not feel the same repulsion toward survivors of a plane crash who resort to cannibalism as we do toward cultures that engage in cannibalistic rituals.

In 2017, Illinois became the second state after California to ban an absurd legal defense theory known as the “Gay Panic Defense”. The gist of the theory (if it really needs an explanation) is that a murder defendant tries to justify a violent response toward a victim after learning that the victim was gay or transgender. According to a study by UCLA School of Law, these defenses have been used in about half of the states in the U.S., but, overall, they are rarely used and not a reliable defense.

Some legal scholars, while noting the undeniable problems with having such a defense in our legal system, maintain that an outright ban may produce unintended consequences. I only mention this specific example to highlight how this emotion of disgust and its consequences reverberates in the fields of law and public policy.

One man’s disgust may be another’s delight. But, can we turn something disgusting into something appealing?

In psychology, the “contagion heuristic” leads people to avoid contact with people or objects viewed as “contaminated” by previous contact with someone or something viewed as bad. For example, we tend to view food that has touched the ground as contaminated by the ground and no longer edible (unless we pick it up and put it in our mouths within five seconds, in which case we have nothing to worry about).

Another aspect of the contagion heuristic includes “magical thinking”. With such a view, we might look at a sweater worn by Adolf Hitler as bearing his negative essence and capable of transmitting it to another wearer. This perception of essence-transfer extends to rituals to purify items viewed as spiritually contaminated, such as having Mother Teresa wear Hitler’s sweater to counteract its essence.

Food, if not for consumption, at least, for thought.

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