It is not all bad. Disgust has its advantages. Its origins are likely rooted in the survival instinct to avoid anything that tastes or smells bad. It may also prevent us from adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, such as eating other sources of protein or drinking reclaimed water.
Can anything be done about this? The fact that disgust varies between cultures and across ages implies it can. But how?
In order to find out, we first had to understand how disgust is expressed. We focused on the hate that people feel when they choose food for everyday use and not on their aversion to the unfamiliar or unknown.
Our research shows that some responses to disgust, once established in childhood, can be hard to change. The reactions that are based on culturally conditioned notions of what’s “natural” can be changed over time.
In Thailand, insects have been a part of the culture for a long time. Narong Sangnak/EPA
Do not eat this!
Disgust likely began as an emotional reaction to “basic” contaminants, such as food that smelt and tasted bad. It was originally a “don’t eat that” emotion.
The disgust system is “conservative,”” i.e., it rejects valid sources of nutrition with characteristics that suggest they may be risky and guides us to food choices that seem safer. According to research by University of British Columbia psychologist Mark Schaller, people living in areas where disease rates are historically high have not only stricter rules for food preparation but more conservative cultural traditions as a whole.
It is not clear when or how individual templates of what is disgusting were set. However, what is considered “disgusting” is generally set fairly early in life. Disgust is shaped by culture, learning, and development.
It’s not natural!
In our research, we asked 510 adults to rate the “normal” and alternative products using an online survey. We also asked how much they were willing to pay for these alternatives. They were also asked to rate the product that was healthier, more natural, and visually appealing. Pairs of products included:
Out of shape: by using fruits and vegetables that are common, the results of the study were not affected by the fear of the unfamiliar. www.shutterstock.com
Even after statistically correcting for obvious factors such as pro-environmental attitudes and propensity to dislike, our results show that those with greater “disgust tendency” are less likely to consume atypical products (products that look weird).
It may seem obvious, but many previous studies have confused a food’s “novelty” with its potentially disgusting qualities (by asking, for instance, if people would eat bugs). Our study shows how disgust can influence what we eat by asking people about common fruits and veggies.
As importantly, our results suggest evaluations of a product’s perceived naturalness, taste, health risk, and visual appeal “explains” about half of the disgust effect.
This was due to the lack of perceived “naturalness.”” This result is consistent with other studies which have examined attitudes toward eating bugs and lab-grown meat. This is an area that social marketing can take advantage of.
Marketing campaigns that promote “natural” products could be effective in changing attitudes. It’s been done before. Take a look at this advert to reduce sugar consumption.