A guru of the gross: St. Joe’s prof investigates the nature of disgust

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Some people and things that President Trump says are disgusting:


Madonna. Barney Frank. Wind farms. Rotting utility poles. The Mexican court system. A magazine cover that shows a woman breastfeeding her 3-year-old son.

This intrigues Alex Skolnick, a St. Joseph’s University psychologist who studies the power and influence of a particular emotion: disgust.


Skolnick works to search out people’s reactions and reasons for revulsion. He is a ponderer of the putrid, a scrutinizer of the sickening, a guru of the gross.





“I have been amazed by disgust,” Skolnick said in his Post Hall office, where a large cockroach floats in a jar on his desk. “The more I study disgust, the more questions I have.”

Such as: Why is a food that’s common in one culture — scorpions, anyone? — considered disgusting in another? And, if a cockroach scurries past a man and woman sitting on a couch, does gender determine whose job is it to get up and nab the leggy intruder?

His classes rank among the few where a student would utilize a toy-store set of Poo-Dough, the less-popular cousin of Play Dough. Let’s just say that Poo-Dough doesn’t come in rainbow colors.

Skolnick, 53, of Dresher, started his career studying wonderment, the sense of being amazed.



But he found that college students were practically immune. The Grand Canyon? A majestic sunset? Yawn. Anything they wanted to know, see or buy was as close as their cellphone.

And Skolnick had always been drawn to disgust. His future was sealed during a conversation with a third-year medical student who, despite her immersion in the functions of the human body, was disgusted by the sight of blood.

How, Skolnick asked, could that be?

Disgust is visceral, aversive,  dictionary-defined as a revulsion aroused by something supremely unpleasant. But even Webster’s doesn’t say what that something may be.




It can differ from place to place and country to country.

Your local Acme doesn’t stock hákarl, a decomposed shark carcass that The World Atlas calls “the most unimaginable, rancid thing on planet Earth.” In Iceland, it’s a national dish.

Disgust falls into general categories that include food, sex, death, hygiene, body substances, and violations of the body envelope — that is, mutilation, or a foreign object ending up in the wrong orifice.

It’s been studied for a long time. Even Charles Darwin was interested.




 More than 140 years ago, in his seminal Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin observed that the facial movements provoked by extreme disgust were almost identical to those that appear prior to vomiting.

These days, disgust is getting new attention, explored in general-interest books and a trove of academic studies. That it’s a go-to presidential put down raises its profile.

University of Pennsylvania professor Paul Rozin, the godfather of modern disgust studies, has extended the inquiry into moral disgust.

In one test, he and his colleagues told subjects that they had discovered a sweater that once belonged to Adolf Hitler — and asked them to try it on. Most people refused. They saw the sweater as contaminated by the evil of the person who wore it.




That’s another thing about disgust: it’s contagious.

If a rotting apple touches a fresh apple, you may decide not to eat the good one. That’s not true of, say, anger. A person who’s angry at a slow-functioning computer doesn’t get mad at the keyboard.

Disgust still is not fully understood, often confused with fear and playing a role in phobia. What’s more, Skonick said, the interrogation of disgust isn’t merely an academic exercise. It has real-world applications, particularly in health and medicine.

For example, people who have elevated disgust or fear are less likely to get a colonoscopy or prostate exam, which screen for cancer. Medicine that tastes bitter — a sensation strongly bound to disgust — may cause people to discontinue a treatment.




Skolnick is currently trying to figure out if disgust can predict health. That is, if you are easily disgusted, will you be healthier, because you’re more germ-conscious,  washing your hands more often?

Determining how disgust can help or harm the human species is a focus of his work.

In 2013, Skolnick and a colleague sought to discover if people who live in countries with higher rates of infectious disease were more easily disgusted, possibly as a defense against illness.

Students at St. Joe’s and the University of Ghana  rated their reactions to several situations: Stepping on a worm with bare feet. Seeing a preserved human hand in a jar. Watching soup being stirred with a fly swatter.




It turned out the Ghanaian students showed greater disgust, especially in circumstances that could expose them to contamination, Skolnick found. West Africa has elevated levels of disease.

In the United States, men show less disgust than women — and both seem to want it that way. In Skolnick’s cockroach-in-the-room study, 96 percent of men said they would get the bug, and 90 percent of women said they wanted the guy to grab it. Both assumed traditional gender roles: Getting rid of something foul was a man’s job.

But what if men and women weren’t given a choice?

Skolnick and his colleagues constructed a test where people had to blindly reach into a box and touch what was inside.




Naturally, everyone preferred to touch cotton pom-poms instead of live worms. But women reported much higher disgust  an instinctive recognition that germs can hide in slime and wetness – indicating what could be a natural defense of children or pregnancy.

Over time Skolnick has become less disgusted by the disgusting. Exposure has had an impact.

 But he was disgusted recently, when he reached into a bin and inadvertently stuck his hand into slimy, rotting vegetables.

“When I do get disgusted I’m really conscious of it, because I’m interested, and it’s so unusual,” he said, “and I stop myself and say, ‘Oh, you were just disgusted.’”




















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