Home Faculty meeting How disgust explains it all – The New York Times

How disgust explains it all – The New York Times


The most important accounts of disgust after Darwin come from a Hungarian male couple born two years apart, Aurel Kolnai (born 1900) and Andras Angyal (1902). I have found no evidence that they knew each other, but it seems unlikely that Angyal, whose disgust article appeared in 1941, did not draw on his compatriot’s article, which appeared in 1929. Oddly enough , Angyal’s article does not contain any reference to Kolnai. One possibility is that Angyal did not cite his sources. A second possibility is that he was really unaware of the previous article, in which case you must be wondering if there was something so unnaturally disgusting in early 20th century Central Europe that two foreigners born there have been led to lengthy investigations on one subject not taken another seriously.

A third possibility is that Angyal started reading Kolnai’s article and gave up halfway in frustration. Although brilliant, Kolnai’s writing has the density of osmium. His article is chock-full of spooky quotes and layered clauses in a baklava-like profusion. Nevertheless, Kolnai was the first to come up with a number of ideas that are now commonly accepted in the field. He pointed out the paradox that disgusting things often have a “curious incentive” – ​​think of the cotton swab you inspect after removing it from a waxy ear canal, or the existence of reality TV shows. on plastic surgery, or “Fear Factor”. “He identified the senses of smell, taste, sight and touch as the main sites of entry and stressed that hearing is not a strong vector of disgust.” One would look in vain for one. parallel even roughly equivalent in the auditory sphere to something like a putrid smell, the sensation of a limp body or a torn belly. “

For Kolnai, the exemplary object of disgust was the rotting corpse, which showed him that the disgust did not have its origin in the do rot but the to treat of it. Think about the difference between a corpse and a skeleton. Although both present evidence that death has occurred, a corpse is disgusting where a skeleton is, at worst, very frightening. (Hamlet wouldn’t pick up a jester’s rotten head and talk to it.) Kolnai argued that the difference had to do with the dynamic nature of a rotting corpse: the fact that it changes color and shape, produces a changing range of smells and other ways suggested the presence of life in death.

Angyal argued that the disgust was not strictly sensory. We may experience colors, sounds, tastes and smells as unpleasant, but they could never be disgusting on their own. By way of illustration, he told a story of walking in a field and passing in front of a hut from which a pungent odor, which he took for that of a rotting animal, pierced his nostrils. His first reaction was intense disgust. The next moment he found out he had made a mistake and that the smell was actually glue. “The feeling of disgust immediately disappeared and the smell now seemed quite pleasant,” he wrote, “probably because of some rather pleasant associations with carpentry.” Of course, then re-paste probably do had come from dead animals, but the affront had been neutralized by nothing more than Angyal’s shifting mental associations.

The disgust, Angyal argued, was not just smelling a bad smell; it was a visceral fear of being tainted by the smell. The closer the contact, the stronger the reaction. Angyal’s study is even more enjoyable when viewed in the context of its preface, which explains that the material is based on observations and conversations “not formally gathered,” and that the method, “if you can call it that, ”lacked objectivity and control. As you read the article 80 years later, as a replication crisis in science continues to unfold, Angyal’s humility takes on a refreshing flavor. I’m just a guy who notices things, he seems to be saying. Let’s see where this leads.

I met for the first time Rozin in a Vietnamese restaurant on the Upper West Side in the middle of summer. He arrived in a Tang-colored bob and navy pinstripe shirt. After ordering, we sat at a blond wooden table and ate rice pancakes stacked with various plant elements. Rozin had ordered a green papaya salad to share, and while piercing the papaya, he noted that “it’s, right now, a form of social bonding – eating from one bowl.” (He and a team did a study on this.) A fun thing about dating a research psychologist is that he can usefully annotate all kinds of immediate lived phenomena, and in Rozin’s case, he may even have assumed the explanations itself. . Our pancakes, to take an example, were the width of a basketball – enough to feed six, easily – and yet we each polished the jumbo portion. “Unit bias” is the heuristic that Rozin and his co-authors coined to describe the effect in 2006. The idea is that humans tend to assume that a given unit of an entity is the appropriate and optimal amount to consume. That’s why movie theater popcorn and king-size candy bars are treacherous, and perhaps one of the reasons the French – with their traditionally small portions – stay thin.

Rozin, now 85, was born in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood to Jewish parents who, although they had not been to college themselves, were cultured and artistic and delighted to find their son was a brain. He took a test at a public school for gifted children, dropped out of high school early, and received a full scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he enrolled just after his 16th birthday. After graduating, he obtained a joint doctorate. at Harvard in Biology and Psychology, completed a post-doctorate at the Harvard School of Public Health and in 1963 joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where his first experiments focused on the behavior of rats and goldfish. As he quickly transitioned from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, Rozin decided he had had enough of animal studies and wanted to focus on the bigger game.