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Mukesh Adenwala


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What factors beyond fear can be causal factors of disgust?

I think disgust is a topic that cannot be talked about without evoking the feeling of disgust in almost all concerned. Therefore, every opportunity to talk about this topic should be fully explored. Let me try to extend the discussion beyond mere politics of disgust.

I am of the opinion that disgust is the seed of biases. If I am vegetarian, a non-vegetarian evokes disgust in me and that limits my interactions with her. One of the biases against Caucasians is that they do not wash after they poop. This was true for 15th century Red Indians and Latinos and is true for some Indians today. They (mainly Americans) are barbarians in the eyes of Japanese and Chinese because their outlook and manners are considered `aggressive', or that they do not show `proper respect' for the authority.
It important to discuss these biases because it is these biases that stand in the way of us becoming a real global community.
One of the factors that contribute to this seed of biases is fear. In other words, fear is a certain important part of DNA of the feeling of disgust. Scientists tell us that our fear of poison is the factor that we have such strong physical reactions to vile smells and tastes. If eating is life supporting, then vomiting is anti-life. And we know that when we even hear the word vomit, our body reactions to that stimulus is measurable.

Thus, it is possible to hypothesize about our embedded biases, the biases that hinder our closer mingling and cooperation, something that has not only gradually happened across history, but also has produced richer outcomes for the mankind.

My question is: Besides fear, what possible other factors could form part of DNA of disgust?

Topics: science society
progress indicator
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    Oct 26 2012: In the given context of a 'global community' I see the following other factors:

    Lack of respect
    Lack of interest
    Lack of empathy
    Lack of knowledge
    Lack of self-reflection
    Lack of acceptance of differences
    Excessive right/wrong ratings
    Excessive national pride/arrogance
    • Oct 27 2012: Thank you for your comment. Are these not the consequences born out of disgust? Do we not feel disrespectful, insolent, unattached, unsympathetic, etc. because of the feeling of disgust? If so, ignorance, lack of knowledge, biased judgements, etc. would result from the first order consequences.
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        Oct 27 2012: If those were consequences, yet applied would avoid disgust to form, wouldn't they be causal factors to it?

        Fear in this context is no absolute, no single source and independent emotion. And your given examples I do not see justified by fear only:

        Why shoud I fear a vegetarian on my table, as long I get my meat if I wan't to?

        Why should I fear someone who does not wash after toilet, as long as I avoid contact and this one does not prepare my food?

        Considering manners 'agressive' is no proof, that they are.

        Showing no respect to authority is a lack of acceptance, should that be fearsome in all cases?

        I see the origin of disgust in humans more like an self-protective reflex not to eat the wrong food, which may be toxic or unhealthy in short terms to our system. If humans were scavengers, I assume, our levels of disgust were quite different from those we currently developed.

        If they get a chance, some babies even play with there faeces, without no sign of disgust on their faces. So disgust seems also to be rooted in our breeding.

        The instinct of disgust as a natural reflex and its conditioned component, may be triggered by fear, yet if this fear is partially conditioned, at least this part could be controlled and maybe changed in 'filling' in those lacks which I listed before or by reducing their 'excessiveness'.
        • Oct 28 2012: One may not fear a vegetarian on one's table but does a vegetarian feel the same? Have you watched videos of children eating while flies are buzzing around their food and on their face and not feel disgusted? Not necessarily. Do we not feel disgusted by the people who spit or relieve themselves on the road? I think we would.

          Let me explain about disgust in some more detail. My grandpa told me this incident: "In 1940s people used to go to Aden by sea. The ship had a dinning room with chairs marked in english `veg' and `non-veg' at the back of the chair. Vegetarian people from India, who could not read english mistakenly sat on non-veg marked chairs and were served non-veg food. Sometimes, they enjoyed non-veg food too. However, when someone told them that they had eaten non-veg they would vomit for 2-3 days." This is the effect of a bias; it has physiological consequences and not always such consequences can be kept under control. Rationality may not come to rescue.

          I am of the opinion that our self-protective reflexes are not as detailed as in other creatures. For example, what explains our disgust for lizards or cockroaches or mice? You are right that our disgust responses are learned responses - acquired with knowledge of our surroundings and heavily tilted in favor of cultural practices.
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        Oct 28 2012: I have some trouble to understand your `veg/non-veg' example, as I consider vegetarians to be able to distinguish what's on their plate, so you may help me to get your understanding on this.

        Also and personally, I do not have any disgust towards lizards, cockroaches or mice. On the contrary. As child I was trying to catch lizards for my terrarium collection. I used to have a tamed mouse as a student. And today, since I have a cat, I have to catch mice every now and then, because my cat brings some of them home alive.

        I think many reactions of 'disgust' are conditioned. A friend of mine is very much afraid of spiders and whenever she sees one, she really panics. One day I found out, that her mother was even more afaraid of spiders, and could not control herself but to flee in horror for even the smallest ones. As I am not afraid by spiders, I took a closer look in my family and found, that none of my parents nor my siblings are afraid.

        Also I have seen many children which were not disguested by flies while eating, they got annoyed by them.

        But I agree with you, that our 'self-protective reflexes' seem more like degraded remains of a once more sophisticated system. Maybe there was just less necessity for it due to the refinement in our food supply.
  • Oct 29 2012: Ignorance, arrogance, ethnocentrism; these could form part of what you've referred to as 'DNA of disgust'. But some things really deserve our disgust. Like injustice and acts of wickedness.
    • Oct 30 2012: By `DNA of disgust' what I meant was the genes of disgust; something around which the disgust evolves and finds its basis. Certainly there would be multifarious reasons or factors - some of which you have mentioned - that evoke disgust in us, some of which, as you rightly say, are necessary.
  • Oct 29 2012: Minced meat when cooked with lots of spices - as is done in India and in Muslim world - tastes very similar to cooked cauliflower; cooked brinjal looks similar to cooked jellyfish - there are other examples.
    Fear and disgust of lizards, mice, spiders, cockroaches, snakes, flies, etc. are widely prevalent though I share your indifference to some extent and in certain condition. In the talk David gives an example of something else that is even more pervasive. Perfectly healthy food made to look as poop is not eaten in his experiment though the difference is explained in detail (in some more experiments, the very preparation of such foods was shown to the people participating in the experiments). So, individual difference apart, there are certain things that generally evoke disgust.
    I have also seen many children that are not disgusted by flies of squalor around them - most of them mainly poor (around 5-7 years of age), or very young (infants). The elder children even get used to foul smell.
    I think that our less articulated reflex system is the result of our bigger brain that gives us more options for action - or withholding it - in a given situation.
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    Oct 28 2012: I would submit that violence is the principle factor in disgust. When I hear the word disgust, I think of bodies. The tragic loss of life. It is easy to evoke that on either side of a political argument with thousands of years of history to pull from.
    • Oct 28 2012: I agree. Violence has all the ingredients for meeting of body and mind. Do you think that any severe physiological reaction outside of one's own conscious control should qualify for the basis of disgust?
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    Oct 27 2012: You said, "f I am vegetarian, a non-vegetarian evokes disgust in me and that limits my interactions".

    It can limit your interactions, but that limitation is your choice, not the non-vegetarian's. Biases might be embedded in us by our parents, but when we achieve adulthood, it is time to test those biases and eliminate the ones that are either wrong or don't serve you (and humanity) well.

    So what, besides fear, forms part of disgust? Lack of self-awareness.
    • Oct 28 2012: Thanks. Two points: First, I would not blame parents for our every unresolved bias. Not only the culture seeps into us, but also life does not – and even cannot – offer opportunities to rationally self-examine all of our biases. Thus there is always excess baggage of biases in all of us. To account for these unexplained and unresolved biases, I postulated that fear could be one of the gene around which the structure of the biases take shape.

      Next, surely, non-vegetarian does not feel the same disgust about eating meat and would not even know why someone should feel disgusted about such an innocuous thing or trait. But the veggie would feel that disgust just as the dirty person may not feel disgust about the dirt on him but a cleaner person does. Would you say that if someone spits or urinates on the road it would not disgust the onlookers? I had also said that whenever we hear the word `vomit' our body reactions are measurable.

      Lack of self-awareness you say would have been a good point, but I think the causal factors would have involuntary physiological reactions just as fear does. Would you agree with that? Would you like to contribute further? Thank you once again.
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        Oct 28 2012: I suspect that the cultural difference is interfering with our ability to communicate clearly. I come from a world where the ability to feel "disgust" is a form of mental illness. I tried to bridge that gap, but if disgust is socially acceptable in your milieu, it's probably not possible.
        • Oct 29 2012: If you think of disgust not in absolute but relative terms this problem would not arise. Habituation does occur in all of us. Think of 15th century Europe or USA up to 17th century. There was lots of filth in the surroundings of common men. I had read that in some state of US there still is a law against piling up dirt by the side walks beyond certain feet - a remnant of the bygone era. So, the disgust as mental illness is a recent formulation and certainly not the universal one.
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        Oct 29 2012: From what you have said, you have read some really weird things about the US, Caucasians, and others.