Tired of all the hoopla about the Blogger SAT Challenge? Do you not want to hear another word about Booker T. Washington and why he is or is not like George W. Bush? Then have I got a study for you: Yolanda Martins and Patricia Pliner have conducted a fascinating experiment about food preferences — or, rather, what precise attributes make food disgusting.
Though disgust has long been considered to be a “basic emotion,” there has been surprisingly little research on what foods evoke disgust (hopefully by now you’ve figured out that you probably don’t want to read this post too close to a meal). The general consensus until Martins and Pliner’s experiment was that the key to disgust was the “animal” elements of food. Researchers typically found that the more a food reminded people of animals, the more likely they were to be disgusted.
In some ways, it made sense: people chop meat into unrecognizable pieces, they avoid blood or offal, and they even name meats with new words: “beef” and “pork” instead of “cow” and “pig.” But sometimes, the analysis didn’t make much sense: theorists had to argue that people are disgusted by a slimy cucumber because it reminds them of a slimy animal.
What Martins and Pliner did in their study is figure out a new way to parse the data. They identified 12 components of disgust from the literature, ranging from bloodiness, organs, and fat to spoilage, squishiness, and insects. Then they created 24 different scenarios, two for each component. Here are a couple typical ones, for the category “viscera”:
You are visiting some friends in the Southern United States and one evening you all go out to dinner. One of your friends orders chitterlings, a specialty dish in the South which is really the intestines of a hog. Your friend offers you a bite of his chitterlings. How would you feel about eating the chitterlings?
You are in a butcher’s shop awaiting your turn at the counter when you notices a large pile of intestines piled on the corner of the chopping block, just barely touching the slab of beef that is currently being cut. When you are at the counter you request a piece of steak and the butcher cuts it from the slab of beef touching the pile of intestines. Later that day the steak is cooked. How would you feel about eating the steak?
The first 80 participants rated how they felt about each of these scenarios in four different ways: nausea, dislike of the idea of the food in their stomach, dislike of the food source, and general disgust. Then 69 participants rated the same scenarios along each component of disgust: bloodiness, sliminess, and so on.
By analyzing these two separate tasks in conjunction with one and other, Martins and Pliner were able to show that there are actually two different dimensions of disgust: a tactile dimension (represented by gooeyness, sliminess, mushiness, smell, and rot), and the previously identified animal dimension (animalness, contact with blood, reminder of life, bloodiness, contact with other bodily fluids, like humans, and reminder of humans).
Martins and Pliner suggest that minimizing these factors may be a key way to introduce new foods in ways that will be acceptable to lots of people. For example, insects can be a good source of protein, but are found to be disgusting by most Westerners. Preparing and/or marketing them in a manner that makes them less disgusting might be a way to increase the use of insects in Western cooking.
Martins, Y., & Pliner, P. (2006). “Ugh! That’s disgusting!”: Identification of the characteristics of foods underlying rejections based on disgust. Appetite, 46, 75-85.