The Importance of Being Grossed Out



Faculty Researcher Jennifer Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management; Richard Zeckhauser, Ramsey Professor of Political Economy, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title Disgust Promotes Disposal: Souring the Status Quo Coauthor Seunghee Han, Carnegie Mellon University

A range of things cause people to feel disgusted — poor hygiene, body products, moral offenses — and it is no surprise that people avoid the things that disgust them. But is disgust such a powerful emotion that it can cause someone to give away a possession simply because it’s been in the proximity of the offensive stimulus? That is what Harvard Kennedy School researchers Jennifer Lerner and Richard Zeckhauser, along with Carnegie Mellon University psychology graduate student Seunghee Han, explore in their latest paper.

More often than not, people faced with a decision to stay with what they have or exchange it for something else will stick with what they know and not disrupt the status quo. The researchers hypothesized, however, that if someone associates a current possession with an experience that disgusted them, he or she will be more likely to overcome the status quo bias and discard the object in favor of something else. They further hypothesized that even someone who is told that a disgusting experience should not affect the attractiveness of a possession will still prefer to exchange it.

In their working paper, “Disgust Promotes Disposal: Souring the Status Quo,” the authors describe the two experiments carried out to investigate their hypotheses. In the first, participants were randomly divided into two groups. All were given a covered box they were told contained office supplies, and was theirs to keep. Then the two groups were shown one of two film clips. One group watched a neutral video on the Great Barrier Reef; the other watched a disgust-promoting scene from the film Trainspotting in which a man uses a filthy toilet. Participants were then offered the chance to exchange their box of stationery for another one of equal value. Those who watched the disgusting video were significantly more likely to trade away their possession (more than 50 percent did so), overcoming the status quo bias, than those who watched the neutral video (only 32 percent).

“Disgust can drive choice even when decision makers have no good reason to prefer one item over another,” write the authors. “Perhaps surprisingly, participants reported no influence of disgust on their choices, but identified other barely relevant characteristics as influences.”

In the second experiment, participants went through a similar test, but this time they were warned after watching the video that its nature could have an effect on the next part of the experiment (in which they chose to keep or swap their boxes). The warning very clearly stated that they should try their best not to let the pleasant or unpleasant nature of the video influence how they felt about the box. Although the trading percentages were slightly lower than in the first experiment, the researchers were surprised to find that disgusted participants still traded at a significantly higher level than those exposed to a neutral stimulus.

“The finding that disgust promotes disposal has real-world implications that range from the minor to the monumental,” the authors conclude. “In a broad array of cases, people’s propensity to stick with the status quo could be powerfully counteracted by feelings of incidental disgust . . . . Thus, a senior citizen who bathes insufficiently may suffer more social isolation than mere foul smell would seem to merit, perhaps accelerating a health decline via lack of social support . . . . Similarly, a cancer patient who is nauseated by chemotherapy drugs may be too inclined to switch to alternative treatments, to her detriment.”

Lerner explains that these findings can have a significant effect on policy decisions: “At the policy level, the results reveal strategies for changing human behavior,” she says. “If the existing system is failing, and should be changed, then one powerful way to persuade people to change is to associate the existing system with disgust. For example, if you want to encourage people to give up smoking, then you create an association between smoking and, say, disgusting pictures of cancerous lungs . . . . Rather than as a way to discourage existing behavior, you can also use it to encourage new behavior. You might think of something that people find disgusting, such as injecting themselves with needles at home for medically prescribed treatment. Often, doing such treatments at home can save a lot of health expense, but people want to go in to the hospital instead because they find the blood and needles disgusting. Considerable health-care dollars could be saved if the psychology of disgust were taken into account, creating positive associations with the home treatment.”

— by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

"In a broad array of cases, people’s propensity to stick with the status quo could be powerfully counteracted by feelings of incidental disgust."

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