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January 21, 2004


Steven Pinker, in his book Blank Slate (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) relates the theory from evolutionary psychology that the emotion disgust evolved to keep us away from objects that can carry or pass on diseases. Instead of having to eat something rotten, diseased, or worm ridden, and then vomiting violently, our big brains let us merely look at the object and feel the reaction, sometimes so severely that we react as if we had touched or eaten it.

We've all experience the feeling of stomach churning recoil upon just seeing the object. The recoil reaction would only make logical sense if we were already touching it, or were about to. But this same simple wire system has been enhanced to better protect us from threats in the environment.

The Economist magazine reports on some confirmation of this theory of disgust published in the "Proceedings of the Royal Society".

Go and participate in the scientific study by rating how you feel about some photographs. I'll be here when you get back.

Another thing Dr. Pinker related was the idea that not only can this disgust reaction be triggered visually; it can be trained through verbal commands from parents and others. If the toddler is crawling towards the Drain-O, mom can holler "No" and make a disgusting face, and say "bad" and such, until the toddler associates Drain-O with the set of disgusting things to be avoided. Once finally set to trigger, the toddler's own disgust system should mostly keep them out of trouble from then on, at least regarding that particular product.

Most everyone feels disgust and revulsion toward scat, poop, or shit, which is rather interesting. Almost all mammals eat poop at one time or another, but people don't. Dogs eat cat poop, ruminants eat poop to get their gut bugs set up, and many animals lick up baby poop to get it out of the nest. However, we are taught by our parents at a young age that poop is disgusting, using all the techniques of getting our disgust reaction to trigger.

One reason this may have started is that humans pass on both parasites and also deadly diseases like Cholera, since we tend to live in large concentrations that aren't highly mobile, unlike migrating herds of antelope and other grazers. For our species, extreme poop avoidance is very wise, and being disgusted by it would make profound sense. A related thought comes from meme theory, which holds that any lesson taught young enough tends to be absorbed and passed on to the next generation. If your mom gets you disgusted by poop, you will spend your life disgusted by it, and will teach your children that poop is disgusting, and so on and so on, generation after generation.

Toilet and eating habits are learned young, and tend to be very stable over long stretches of time. American's still use their forks differently than Europeans, a difference that reportedly started during the colonial period, when the English stopped shipping sharp knives due to a ban on points by King James I in an effort to reduce crime. Without a point on a knife it doesn't hold meat well, unlike a carving fork. And unlike a fork or spoon, which you can choke up on, the knife will slice open your fingers if you choke up on it. The English hadn't started shipping us forks yet, since they were still working to meet local demand. So we started cutting up meat by using a spoon held upside down, then switching the spoon to our right hand to scoop up the slice of meat. When the forks came over, we just substituted them for the spoon without changing our habit. Next time you're eating a steak, try using a knife and spoon. You'll find it works about the same as a knife and fork, as Americans use them.

Similarly in polite society we extend our pinky finger when eating and drinking, never letting it touch anything. It seems mystifying as to why we would do this, until you know that up until the 1500's the pinky was the wiping finger. Letting it touch the communal food was good reason for an ass kicking. 500 years later, the habit is still with us, passed on at an early age. Even after the pinky quit being physically disgusting and unclean, we still treat it as if it was, centuries on. Those table manners stay with us long after we forget why a particular one started in the first place.

Now, getting back to the topic of disgust, not only can you trigger this reaction in young children regarding genuinely dangerous objects, you can also do it with any object. And the child may misinterpret exactly what you are trying to label as disgusting. This primitive system is extremely susceptible to false triggering. And not only can you trigger the system with objects; you can also trigger it with people. Dr. Pinker feels this may be responsible for why social segregation has repeatedly arisen, with the Indian caste system and the untouchables, or the way many southerners during segregation didn't want to eat in a restaurant with a colored person. The fact that this segregation seems to have been concentrated on restaurants (NO COLORED) is one indicator that it was a disgust reaction, which often centers on food. Statements like "they carry diseases", "they are unclean", "they stink", "they don't wash" are similar signs that what is going on is fundamentally a disgust reaction, probably triggered since early childhood when parents, after teaching their kids that poop was disgusting, used much the same techniques to teach their children that certain groups of people were likewise to be avoided. Thus you get segregation.

Given this, I had some thoughts on what may be going on today, and how this system might be triggering falsely, or certainly more strongly than it needs to. Starting in the 1950's, 1960's, and onward, there was likely a new group of people who parents started to single out as "diseased", "unclean", "dangerous", and the like. We call them smokers. After the cancer report came out, many people sought to avoid exposure to cigarette smoke, and would likewise have protected their children from it as if it was a deadly contagion or VX nerve gas. Those children would grow up to react to smoke not in a rational manner, but with visceral disgust and fear. These would be people who don't just object to smoking on logical grounds, but feel sickened by the smell, or even the sight of it. They can't help how they react, anymore than anyone else could but feel sickened at the sight of someone eating dog poop. It makes them feel disgust, with the loss of appetite, the discomfort, and the anxiety that disgust produces. These people would likely make up the core of the extreme anti-smoking groups. You can usually tell who they are by the reaction on their face if you light up. As if they're looking at a rotting corpse or pile of maggots, which is basically how their brain is reacting to the sight.

But anti-smoking doesn't just stop there, at the behavior. Many parents pointed at smokers and say "filthy", "disgusting", "bad". Their children likely feel disgust not at smoking, but at smokers as a class of people, those unclean, disease carrying people who should be strongly avoided. They often act as if smokers should have no rights or place of their own. To them, smokers are the new untouchables. Some of the smoking bans reflect this. If it was just cigarette smoke in restaurants that many anti-smokers objected to, just having a sufficient or even majority of restaurants go non-smoking would be acceptable. But many push for a complete ban on all smoking, everywhere. As if not only should blacks not be allowed to eat in white restaurants, but there should be no all black restaurants anywhere, either. Not one little place in an entire city where smokers can go to be off by themselves. For many whose parents instilled in them the disgust reaction regarding smokers, as well as smoking, they can only react to the new class of "untouchables" with all the contempt, derision, and disgust as have any throughout history. They will not compromise, because it's their guts that tell them what to do and how to feel regarding the other class of people.

You might say that as one generation of bigots was disappearing, a new generation of bigots was being born. Even if cancer and lung disease were cured tomorrow, they would feel no different about smokers. The trouble is, these people will probably always feel this way, and at this point there may not be much that can be done about it. In trying to protect them from smoking, their parents may have inflicted on them a cruel torture. To live in a world where the disgust reaction is triggering off a common habit. It can't be pleasant for them.

January 21, 2004 in Science | Permalink


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» Fascinating. from The Accidental Jedi
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» Non-rational Reactivity from e-Claire
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Add to that group the former smokers who are just plain jealous, for they surely are, and you get a formidable batch of angry people who have to take it out on others in retribution.

Posted by: MommaBear at Jan 25, 2004 10:54:43 AM

As in a lot of other cases, I'm here in defiance of logic. I came from a family of smokers, of which I am the only non. My father, my mother, uncles, etc. Even my siblings (I am the oldest of them, by the way). I recall at the age of six stating that I would never smoke (mom, as most parents do, gave me the "we'll see when the time comes" look), and over 20 years later, I have kept that promise to myself. I was not bombarded with "you shouldn't smoke because it's bad for you" propaganda, as most of my peers became smokers, or worse. Nearly every woman I've ever been involved with was a smoker, too. They all said they wanted to quit, and all had my support (obviously), but none of them ever followed through. Smoke, even at the age of six, gave me a tremendous headache. There are times when it will trigger one of my oh-so-common migraines, thus I severely limit myself to interaction with smokers. This, at times, will separate me from family, friends, and even the person I'm dating at the time (I won't even kiss her until she brushes her teeth and gargles mouthwash, but that's just me).

The point of all this ranting (yes, I had a point to make beyond venting my irritation) is that I was not programmed by anyone to hate smoking. It was a decision I made without outside stimuli. There wasn't a mob of anti-smokers standing over me drilling these feelings into me. Honestly, I've always done as much as possible to NOT do what I'm told. I just have a natural aversion to smoke, which just happens to appear to be forced upon me by the "rabid anti-smoker" crowd. Hey, do your own thing. I just won't be a part of it.

Posted by: Warlock at Jan 25, 2004 1:24:20 PM

Good point Warlock!

You are what I'd call a rational anti-smoker. It's a very bad, addictive, smelly habit that is bad for people. You react to it like a person should, and obviously weren't programmed to wretch at the sight of it.

I've met some anti-smokers who were not like that at all. On one caving adventure in sub-zero temperatures (of course the cave was warm, but getting to it wasn't) me and my companions spent the night in an old cabin with a wood stove. After burning half an old Sears catalog to get a fire going, and then piling God knows what on the fire, and then random wood and logs, we started to warm up. The stove leaked a little bit and the house had little wafts of smoke in it.

Knowing I was with an anti-smoker, I went outside to have a puff. I took the butt back in with me, tossed it into the fire, and then got harangued. The anti-smoker was about to vomit, his face all contorted in disgust. He started going on and on about how the cigarette butt burning in the fire ruined the day's whole experience for him.

Considering all other noxious fumes in that fire, this was like the princess and the pea. He was having a sickening visceral reaction to something that he couldn't possibly detect. He's what I'd call an irrational anti-smoker. I think it's mainly these types who drive much of the legislation where no signs of compromise are allowed.

During my cities recent go around with anti-smoking laws, nothing would satisfy them, such as, oh, air curtains in restaurants, increased air-flow, having completely seperate non-smoking rooms with seperate ventilation systems, etc. Things that would cut the exposure down 99% from what they have now were still not acceptable solutions to them. These people are sickened by the thought of even a single particle.

The closest thing to it that I can think of is the way very religious people react over kosher or haram foods. Where having a piece of pork ever just touch something renders that object forever unclean. Where having meet touch a pan used for dairy renders the pan forever unusable, so that it must be replaced.

Posted by: George Turner at Jan 25, 2004 1:46:47 PM

Never been a religious man, either, but that's another story. As with religion, just keep the smoke away from me. I'll be ok.

Posted by: Warlock at Jan 26, 2004 7:45:25 PM

Interesting theory. This certainly is one of the subjects about which people *feel,* not think.

Posted by: Claire at Jan 26, 2004 8:09:52 PM

Very true Warlock,

A sensible position would be to avoid smoke. I think what I'm talking about here is people who feel ill at the site of it from 100 feet away. Those who feel disgust in their gut, not just common sense in their head.

Posted by: George Turner at Jan 26, 2004 8:22:22 PM

I like the "feel, don't think" comment, Claire. Those exact words were spoken in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). I've been telling people that for most of my life. People think too much.

Posted by: Warlock at Jan 28, 2004 12:48:45 AM

Hmm... The fanatics are often called anti-smoking Nazis, and the Nazis also used some of these techniques to describe Jews as unclean and disease carrying vermin. Maybe the Nazi moniker is from the similar blind passion, revulsion, and often hatred that these groups show.

Posted by: George Turner at Jan 28, 2004 2:28:17 AM

Actually Warlock's experience proves nothing one way or the other on Geroge's point. He has a bad physical reaction to cigarette smoke, so his body over-rules any conditioning he may have on this point.
To give a different example - think of some of those examples in the BBC test we were pointed to. SOme were based on color, and while they seem right, I imagine a blind person would react differently.

Posted by: Oscar at Apr 4, 2004 6:43:27 PM

Just asking:
Anyone ever noticed how all these anti-smoking measures never tend to be directed at the produktion-levels of the actual producers of cigarettes? And how the rights to produce tabaccoproducts are being held and sold by our governments( in our country, the Netherlands, the governement is the sole owner of the "right" to tell people wether or not they are allowed to work with or grow tobacco, and has been so ever since tobacco was introduced in Europe.Civilians(loosely used) are not even allowed a single plant to "look at the pretty flowers". A thing they ARE allowed to do with Papaver-plants(and my mom never caught me at 'work').
This is the same governement that restrains me in my smoking habit, the same governement that gets a 50%+ revenue on every packett sold, the same governement that keeps on producing the stuff for export, and so on.
Just thought i'd mention this. I am a heavy smoker, i like it. I always listen to people when they tell me they a lung/breathing-problem, ie I don't smoke when I am around them. If some ***** wants be to stop because of the smell, I usually can ask the same person to get rid of their favorite 'perfume'(you know the one that says it is Chanel, but only if you don't actually use the stuff)because 'smell'and 'stink' are in my opinion only personal feelings and therefore no good reason do either do or not do a certain thing.
Look at their surprised faces......

Smoking is not a healthy habit, and I've alwys known that, but nowadays the anti-smoke movement is way overboard....
so butt off,weaklings

Posted by: john d at Jun 3, 2004 8:14:22 AM

Just a quick comment on the biology of disgust. It turns out that the pathways in the brain that help us learn to avoid pathogens are among the most evolutionarily conserved bits in of all neuronal architecure. A scientist at the Rockefeller University, Cori Bargmann, just published a paper in the journal Nature showing that nematode worms learn to avoid bacteria that make them sick by recognizing the smell. Before getting sick the worms have no aversion. After eating and getting what I suppose is the worm version of the shits, they never go near them again.

Zhang Y, Lu H, Bargmann CI. (2005) Pathogenic bacteria induce aversive olfactory learning in Caenorhabditis elegans. Nature. 2005 438(7065):179-84.

It makes sense that this would be a useful trait for any creature with more than two synapses to rub together and it explains the primal nature of the revulsion I feel when I smell a certain, disgustingly rich, wine-soaked dessert that my mother used to make; and that I once ate so much of that I puked all night. I think Proust talked about a similar experience with Sauce Bernaise and medical doctors and neurobiologists have taken to referring to this as the Sauce Bernaise Effect. I think it also explains my wife's deep revulsion for the smell of cigarette smoke. She has a very sensitive nose and a grandmother who smoked so much at the dinner table that it frequently made her nauseaous. Now even a waft of cigarette smoke when she's eating sends her running from the table.

Interestingly, most of the tobacco chewers I know (including my dad) started when they were kids and almost all of them got violently ill the first few times they tried it. I find it somewhat remarkable that they overcame their initial conditioning. For most of them I suppose there was a significant pressure to keep trying - to prove that they weren't girly men who couldn't chew with the big boys. That was certainly the pressure that got me past my initial aversion to beer - an aversion that stemmed from an unfortunate incident during a camping trip in fourth grade. I got over that quickly enough but later developed a strong aversion to gin (just thinking about the smell of gin right now brings up a little acid burb at the back of my throat). This came after one memorable night of drinking and commode hugging that I think our host, George, may actually remember. I suppose, in the interest of science, I should see how hard it is for me to reverse this conditioning. The human brain is, after all, somewhat more plastic than that of a nematode. Which brings me back to the initial discussion of smoking. Perhaps all the people with cigarette smoke aversions should just get over it by bucking up and smoking a pack a day for a few weeks. Sure they'll be sick for a while but I have confidence that, with a little will power, they will get over it.

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Posted by: Pharadei Marts at Jul 5, 2007 4:05:00 PM

Excellent article and excellent points. I made a few similar comments at points in "Brains". Here's an excerpt from one of my closing chapters, "The True Costs" (p. 212 - 213) ....


On an individual level, the personal attacks mounted against the character of smokers have surely had a terrible effect on many. Teen smokers and older smokers with background insecurities cannot help but feel personally assaulted by the thousands of billboards, public transit ads, TV spots and misinterpretations of research studies all of which blend to por-tray them as lazy, addicted, diseased, dirty, and even criminal losers in a society of nonsmoking winners. News stories about teens beaten to death or pregnant smokers being shot by mis-guided Crusaders are but the visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to the assaults we’ve encouraged on this new minority group.

There is no count as to how many teen suicides may have resulted from this sort of thing. Imagine a research study that proposed taking a group of a thousand overweight high school students and deliberately inundating them with four years of television, print, and classroom propaganda that surrounded them with images of fat kids fitting the above stereotypes along with pictures, posters, and descriptions of their hearts and blood vessels being clogged and cloyed with fat. Throw in a program encouraging all their friends to think of them as smelly, undesirable, and stupid.
For good measure, add a clause that would allow for the constant monitoring of their weight and their dismissal from extra-curricular and after-school activities if they gained any additional weight or were caught with junk food or wrappers in their possession. Finally, have special days and programs where the thin students would all wear colorful T-Shirts saying “Thin People are the BEST!” or “Being Fat is STUPID!” while competing for scholarships not available to the fat kids.

Such a study proposal would be immediately vetoed because of the obvious risk of not just a few suicides, but of widespread damage to the psyches of all those individuals. Yet, that is what we have done on a much wider and more invasive scale to teen smokers throughout the last twenty years and there has certainly been a price paid, even if not formally tallied....

On the family level, homes are disrupted as one parent joins the ranks of the Innocents or the Neurotics and comes to believe that the other is attacking the health of their children. This familial destruction can happen even if the offender smokes only outside, as Antismokers frighten worried spouses with the idea that burrowing molecules of “toxic smoke” are carried in on clothing and then leap out to cause “mini lung cancers” in children. One Crusader urged parents to “pretend that smoke carries HIV and clean your home accordingly,” while expressing concern about new particles carried in on clothing (Message-ID:19980327211 [email protected]).

While few have firsthand experience of the above, many more have seen the damage to extended families as grand-parents, aunts, and uncles are told that they’re only welcome for holiday gatherings if they stand outside whenever they wish to carry on the “deadly” habit that they’ve enjoyed for fifty or sixty years of their lives. Even sadder, as noted earlier, we’ve seen children educated to believe that kissing a smoking family mem-ber is “like licking an ashtray.” Picture a grandmother being rejected with that comment by her formerly loving grandchildren and think about what that does to the quality of her life.


It's going to take a very long time to repair the hate and damage that have been caused by antismoking fanatics, a very, very long time.

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"
Mid-Atlantic Director, Citizens Freedom Alliance, Inc.
Director, Pennsylvania Smokers' Action Network (PASAN)
web page: http://pasan.thetruthisalie.com/
mailto: [email protected]

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