We're more disgusted by those we don't know, says study

Technically Incorrect: Researchers analyzing smell -- and how it inspires our reactions -- suggest that familiarity doesn't breed as much disgust as foreignness.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


We're more disgusted by those we see as outsiders, apparently.

Disney-Pixar/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The advent of Donald Trump, the politician, has created an atmosphere of greater openness about disgust.

It was he, after all, who described Hillary Clinton's bathroom break during a debate as, well, "disgusting."

Are there, though, gradations of disgust? Are there criteria inside us that make us find one person more disgusting than another?

Helpfully, researchers at Sussex and St. Andrew's universities in the UK delved into this issue. They wondered, you see, whether one person's smell could disgust us more than another's -- and, most importantly, why?

Their conclusions are reassuringly bracing.

They headlined their work "Core Disgust is Attenuated by Ingroup Relations." Yes, it seems that we can tolerate the smell of those whom we consider inside our group a little more than those whom we regard as foreigners.

These researchers conducted two experiments. They weren't for the faint of nose.

In the first, they asked 45 participants to smell sweaty T-shirts belonging to others.

The T-shirts were emblazoned with the logo of another university. Each had an identifier -- revealing either the personal identity of the owner (who happened to be a fellow student), their student identity or their university affiliation (which wasn't that of the participants).

In the second experiment, 90 fortunate subjects were asked to smell stinky T-shirts purporting to be from either their own university or a rival university. Some T-shirts bore no logo at all.

The results of both experiments suggest that when the smellers personally identified with the T-shirt owner in some way, they went to wash their hands and pump soap with less urgency than when the T-shirt owner was regarded as "not one of us."

"The analysis points to both the importance of social group boundaries in moderating the experience of 'core' physical disgust, and also the importance of disgust in the analysis of basic group processes, including the ability of group members to cohere and work together," said the researchers in their report.

They posit that it's an important reason why humans can tolerate changing their babies' diapers.

"These findings suggest that disgust isn't just a matter of sensory information -- what we see and touch and smell -- but of our social relationship to the source," researcher Anne Templeton told the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES).

As with all studies, you hope there's a soupcon of, well, hope. This was offered to the THES by Professor Stephen Reicher, who led the study.

"The reduction of physical disgust is a basic mechanism which is necessary for groups to come together, to cohere successfully and to work together effectively," he said.

So should members of Congress immediately smell the sweaty clothing of newcomers, regardless of party, in order to work with them better?

Should there, in fact, be mass compulsory sniffing before all important meetings, in order to get the disgust out of the way?

How wonderful it would be if presidential debates started that way too.

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