How disgust explains everything – The New York Times


The most important reports of disgust after Darwin come from two Hungarian men who were born two years apart, Aurel Kolnai (born 1900) and Andras Angyal (1902). I haven’t found any evidence that they knew each other, but it seems unlikely that Angyal, whose disgusting newspaper appeared in 1941, wasn’t from his compatriot’s newspaper, which appeared in 1929. Strangely enough, the Angyal newspaper does not contain any reference to Kolnai. One possibility is that Angyal failed to give his sources. A second possibility is that he was really unaware of the previous work. In this case one has to wonder if the Central Europe of the early 20’s was taken seriously by another.

A third possibility is that Angyal started reading Kolnai’s newspaper and in the middle of it, gave up in frustration. Although brilliant, Kolnai’s writing has the density of osmium. His paper is full of terrifying quotes and clauses layered in baklava-like abundance. Nonetheless, Kolnai was the first to arrive at a series of discoveries that are now widely recognized in the field. He pointed out the paradox that disgusting things are often “curious temptations” – think of the cotton swab you test after pulling it out of a waxy ear canal or the existence of reality TV shows about plastic ones Surgery or the “fear factor”. “He identified the senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch as the primary entry points and indicated that hearing is not a powerful vector for disgust. “You would look in vain for anything even remotely equivalent in the auditory area to something like a putrid smell, the feeling of a limp body or a torn stomach.”

For Kolnai, the exemplary object of disgust was the rotting corpse, which made it clear to him that disgust was not in the fact of decay, but the process of that. Think about the difference between a corpse and a skeleton. Although both provide evidence that death occurred, a corpse is disgusting where a skeleton is very creepy at worst. (Hamlet wouldn’t pick up a fool’s decaying head and talk to him.) Kolnai argued that the difference had to do with the dynamic nature of a decaying corpse: the fact that it changed color and shape produced a changing range of smells, and otherwise suggested the presence of life in death.

Angyal argued that disgust is not entirely sensory. We may find colors and sounds, tastes and smells unpleasant, but they can never be disgusting in and of themselves. To illustrate this, he told a story of walking through a field and past a hut with a pungent odor that he thought was a rotting animal. His first reaction was violent disgust. In the next moment he realized that he was wrong and that it actually smelled of glue. “The disgust disappeared immediately and the smell seemed quite pleasant now,” he wrote, “probably due to some pleasant associations with carpentry.” Glue, of course, probably back then did came from dead animals, but the affront had been neutralized by nothing but Angyal’s shifting mental associations.

Disgust, Angyal claimed, wasn’t just the smell of a bad smell; it was an instinctive fear of being stained by the smell. The closer the contact, the stronger the reaction. Angyal’s study is even more appealing when viewed in the context of her preface, which explains that the material is based on observation and conversation “that was not collected in any form,” and that the method, “if you can call it that allowed ”, lack of objectivity and control. Reading the paper 80 years later, while a replication crisis in the sciences continues, Angyal’s humility takes on a refreshing aftertaste. I’m just a guy who notices, he seems to be saying. Let’s see where that leads.

i met for the first time Rozin in midsummer in a Vietnamese restaurant on the Upper West Side. He arrived wearing a tang bucket hat and a dark blue pinstripe shirt. After ordering, we sat at a light wooden table and ate rice crepes with various vegetable elements. Rozin had ordered a green papaya salad to share, and as he skewered papaya he noted that “this is a form of social bonding right now – eating from the same bowl”. (He and a team did a study on it.) One of the fun things about hanging out with a research psychologist is that he or she can usefully comment on all kinds of directly lived phenomena, and in Rozin’s case, he may even have guessed the explanations himself. Our crpes, to take an example, were as wide as basketballs – enough to easily feed six – yet we’ve all sanded off the jumbo portion. “Unit bias” is the heuristic that Rozin and his co-authors coined in 2006 to describe the effect. The idea is that people tend to assume that a provided unit of an entity is the correct and optimal amount to consume. Because of this, movie popcorn and king-size candy bars are treacherous, and possibly one reason the French – with their traditionally small portions – stay thin.

Rozin, now 85, was born in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn to Jewish parents who, despite not having attended college, were cultured, artistic, and pleased that their son was mentally ill. He tested in a public school for the gifted, dropped out of high school early and received a full scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he enrolled shortly after his 16th birthday. After graduating, he did a joint Ph.D. at Harvard in biology and psychology, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health, and moved to the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, where his first experiments focused on the behavior of rats and goldfish. As he quickly worked his way up from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, Rozin decided that he was tired of animal testing and wanted to focus on larger wildlife.


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