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Touching our Emotions

Fatima Hafiz Muid

DISGUST

Will extract and revise language to reflect a series of 5 blogs and link to the article

Disgust is an adaptive system whereby individual responses vary according to an individual's personality and learning experience, as well as by local cultural effects such as norms about manners and the symbolism of pollution and purity [7].

First, as one of our principal defenses against infection, disgust can be harnessed to efforts at improving health. It can be employed in programmers to prevent diarrheal diseases, pandemic flu and to aid smoking cessation, for example. Second, disgust has important implications for psychological welfare. It plays a role in obsessive compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders (OCD and PTSD) and it is part of the emotional cost of caring for the sick, elderly and infirm. Stigmatization and self-directed disgust cause suffering in conditions such as obesity and fistula. Thirdly, disgust is a moral emotion that influences social behaviors. Its role in religion, justice, technological progress, caste, class, xenophobia and the politics of exclusion needs to be better understood if we are to create healthier and more humane societies.

4. THE SOCIAL USES AND ABUSES OF DISGUST

While disgust is the primary means by which individual humans detect and avoid infectious pathogens, the problem is not just an individual one. Parasites tend to specialize in exploiting the particular biochemical and morphological features of their hosts, making parasite transmission most likely between biologically similar organisms. Social animals thus face a conundrum; sociality brings fitness benefits, but at the same time it carries an elevated risk of infectious disease. For an ultrasocial species, such as humans, the problem is more acute, as parasites adapt to take advantage of sustained social proximity and interaction. Individuals have to protect themselves and their kin from parasites that have evolved to take every transmission opportunity. Appropriate disease-avoidance strategies thus include preferring to mix with insiders (ethnocentrism), avoiding outsiders (xenophobia), excluding any individuals that show signs of infection (shunning) or punishing those that behave in ways that may threaten others with disease, by displaying poor hygiene, for example. So as not to be punished or excluded, individuals self-police their own hygiene and social contact behavior, sometimes turning disgust on themselves (shame). Group norms of hygiene behavior (manners) may emerge and groups may agree to cooperate on activities that protect the group (public health). Because disgust is ‘strong magic’ that recognizes an ability to contaminate by association, it is used to marginalize outsiders to groups (stigmatization) and is employed in ritual and religion to demarcate what is pure and what is polluted. There is some evidence that disgust plays a role in morality, as much anti-social behavior, as a form of social parasitism, is met with disgust. The workings of disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance in social groups have been discussed at length in a recent paper [7]. Here, I am concerned with the practical implications.

There is much evidence that humans tend to shun other individuals that display signs of disease, as do ants, fish [90,91], bullfrogs [92], mice [93], lobsters [94] and chimps [95]. Human faces made up to look sick are found to be more disgusting than healthy counterparts [2]. Individuals perceived to have disabilities or disfigurements automatically activate disease-relevant cognitions, even when perceivers are explicitly aware that these individuals do not harbor contagious diseases [96,97]. A hypervigilant disgust may be triggered implicitly by a range of conditions that may, or may not, be associated with risk of infection, such as epilepsy, mental illness, mental retardation, obesity, skin conditions such as psoriasis, cancer and HIV [98]. People who are more concerned with disease are less likely to have friends with disabilities [99], to dislike obese individuals more [75] and to display implicit ageism [100]. Having a psychology that is hypervigilant to cues as to who might be carrying an infectious illness means that we are particularly sensitive to socially acquired information about who is sick. Power-seeking individuals can exploit this fact. A common tactic for the playground bully, for example, is to label another child as infected or as having ‘cooties’; the victim then suffers shunning by their peer group.

Damaging as this can be to the individuals who are the subject of suspicion, stigmatization extends the problem of the labelling of individuals as diseased to whole groups. Out-groups, already a subject of suspicion because they could be carrying novel infections to which the in-group has not previously been exposed [1], can be especially easily labelled as disease carriers. A body of work has recently emerged that links parasite stress to assortative sociality (reviewed by Fincher & Thornhill [101]). Cultural groups that have historically faced high rates of parasite stress tend to be more xenophobic, have stronger family ties, and have more languages, ethnic groups and religions. There are a number of possible explanations for why this may be the case and confounding factors cannot be ruled out. However, it is clear that, throughout history, in-groups have been able to bolster ghoulishness by labelling members of out-groups as polluting, dirty, unhygienic, disease-carriers, so justifying caste and class divisions, cruelty, exploitation, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war [102]. Such problems persist globally because the old tricks still work. The powerful continue to exploit our inherent tendencies to cleave to the in-group in the face of a disease threat from the outside. Intercommunal violence and discussion of immigration hence peak at election times [103,104].

Because access to social life is so fundamental to our species, we are predisposed to learn not to inflict our own infectious emanations on others. We learn ‘good manners’ early; covering our mouths when we cough and respecting designated defecation locations, for example [7]. Failures in this department lead to a feeling of shame. Shame also leads those with conditions that they perceive as possibly infecting and hence repulsive to others to sequester themselves. Acne can cause shame and poor self-image [105], and fistula can lead sufferers to remove themselves from the society for fear of causing offence [106]. Incontinence sufferers feel humiliated, as one doctor recounted from his own experience:

To lay in bed, and against all physical rules, and I may say psychological rules as well, and do what you normally do at the toilet was a humiliating experience of the helplessness patients feel when help with basic functions is needed. Why did I never question this part of caring when I worked as a doctor? For us, defecation was only an abstract category in the patient's medical record [107].

A common fear among terminally ill people is that of losing control over their physical functions. Isaksen [108] suggests that this fear is based on becoming ‘dirty’ and hence ‘untouchable’ because of the fears that bodily fluids evoke in others. While the old, the frail, the sick and the disabled, who must hand their body care to others, fear the disgust that they may occasion, overcoming revulsion of body products is one of the issues faced by careers. When the career is a partner, this can put an extreme stress on the relationship [109] and is part of the, often unrecognized, emotional cost of caring [110].

Like the sick, careers face a double whammy, in having not just to deal with the products of sickness but with social stigmatization. Individuals whose work involves contact with body products, hair, feet, sewage, used clothes, wastes and dead bodies tend to be poorly rewarded and suffer low status, perhaps because the nature of the work is perceived to contaminate the individual. Though common throughout the world, it is in the Hindu caste system where such occupational pollution is most visible—and damaging—despite recurrent efforts at reform [111]. Those that campaign against abortion, homosexuality and genetically modified foods exploit the imagery and language of disgust and its ability to contaminate; they employ pictures of aborted fetuses, talk of ‘dirty’ sexual practices and raise the spectra of ‘Frankenfoods’. By labelling the outsider as dirty and diseased, racists and nationalists find that they can also, to some extent, recruit morality to their side [112]. The best defense against such manipulative tactics is first, to understand what is happening, and second, to expose such strategies to the light of public revulsion.

Although disgust plays a key role in protecting us from disease, it is also responsible for much human suffering. Our evolved psychological defenses against parasites are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they provide the first line of defense against infection in social interaction. But at the same time they prevent social interaction, often at a time when it is most needed. Individuals who are sick or who have become contaminated by association, real or imagined, find themselves the subject of involuntary disgust reactions from others, facing disdain, suspicion and sometimes exclusion. Unscrupulous individuals make political capital from blaming and stigmatizing victims and the groups to which they belong, and the victims often turn blame and disgust on themselves.

What can be done to prevent or reverse this unhappy cycle? The recent story of the response to the HIV pandemic holds lessons that give some cause for optimism. First, irrational fears of contamination were, in early days, recognized as a factor in the social response to the disease and the public was educated that victims were not contagious and did not pose a threat to the general population [113]. Groups that were particularly affected, such as homosexuals and sex workers, recognized that a process of stigmatization was underway and organized attempts to combat it. They refused collective stigma by declaring their individuality, for example through artistic productions such as plays, films, literature and events [114]. They supported one another to publicly refuse to accept shame and self-blame. Political activists, patients, academics and health professionals worked together to change public opinion about HIV and AIDS [115]. While the problem has not been fully solved—those living with HIV still suffer from stigma, exclusion and sometimes violence—the public debate and the political response did much to reduce the suffering of the affected and, beyond this, to raise general awareness of the social effects of infectious disease.

Damaging as this can be to the individuals who are the subject of suspicion, stigmatization extends the problem of the labelling of individuals as diseased to whole groups. Out-groups, already a subject of suspicion because they could be carrying novel infections to which the in-group has not previously been exposed [1], can be especially easily labelled as disease carriers. A body of work has recently emerged that links parasite stress to assortative sociality (reviewed by Fincher & Thornhill [101]). Cultural groups that have historically faced high rates of parasite stress tend to be more xenophobic, have stronger family ties, and have more languages, ethnic groups and religions. There are a number of possible explanations for why this may be the case and confounding factors cannot be ruled out. However, it is clear that, throughout history, in-groups have been able to bolster ghoulishness by labelling members of out-groups as polluting, dirty, unhygienic, disease-carriers, so justifying caste and class divisions, cruelty, exploitation, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war [102]. Such problems persist globally because the old tricks still work. The powerful continue to exploit our inherent tendencies to cleave to the in-group in the face of a disease threat from the outside. Intercommunal violence and discussion of immigration hence peak at election times [103,104].

 

Courtesy Of: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3189359/