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The Sunday Read: ‘How Disgust Explains Everything’

The Daily

The New York Times

News, Daily News

4.597.8K Ratings

🗓️ 23 January 2022

⏱️ 41 minutes

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What is “disgust”? Molly Young, a journalist with The New York Times, considers the evolutionary and social uses of this “universal aspect of life” to identify the impact of disgust in its physical, psychological and linguistic manifestations. Young explains the different forms of disgust, analyzing how the reactions they elicit play out in the body and mind, and why it is in many ways cultural. She explains how disgust shapes our behavior, technology, relationships and even political leanings. It’s behind everyday purity rites; the reason we use toilet paper, wash our hands and hold cutlery; it has shadowed the rules that have governed emotion in every culture throughout time. Charles Darwin, the scholar William Ian Miller, the research psychologist Paul Rozin and the philosopher Aurel Kolnai, among the many others who felt compelled, Young explained, to investigate this most primal emotion.

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Hi, my name is Molly Young. I'm a book critic for The New York Times and a contributing


writer to the magazine. About six months ago, I was reading a book by a German scholar named


Vindfried Menninghaus and the book was called Disgust. I was midway through a section titled


Torture Truth and Disemboweled Pigs when my husband happened to glance over and Tee


quite reasonably asked, why are you reading that? And I was like, because disgust is universally


interesting, everybody's interested in this emotion. And he said, I'm not interested.


I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the topic of disgust. And the name that kept


coming up over and over and everything I read was Paul Rosen. Rosen's research was really


the foundation of what would become the explosive area of disgust in academia. So disgust is


defined as an emotional response. It's marked by certain facial movements and it's often


accompanied by nausea or queesiness and a desire to put distance between yourself and the


thing that is disgusting. With Rosen, his initial theory was that disgust was a food-oriented


emotion and that every expression of it tied back in some way to the omnivores dilemma.


That is to say, coming upon a piece of food and wondering whether or not it was too


spoiled to eat. In that instance, disgust is the emotion that keeps you alive. But far


beyond food, Rosen found that this emotion can encompass a whole range of phenomena. We


can get disgusted by stepping in dog poop on the street, looking at hair in the bath


of drain or learning about how a presidential candidate once ate airport salad with


a hair comb as you might remember Senator Amy Klobuchar once famously did. They're


very different things, but your response might be similar. So Rosen's further papers


were an attempt to theorize why that might be. All of us have some kind of baseline level


of disgust sensitivity. I have a low sensitivity and one thing I like to do is read the FDA's


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