Body fluids disgust us less if from someone who is 'one of us'
Tara Moore/Getty By Michael Bond Just being within sniffing distance of someone else’s bodily secretions is usually enough to have us wrinkling our noses in disgust. But knowing that the stuff came from a member of our own group can make it seem a lot more palatable. Psychologists led by Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, UK, asked a group of 45 students how disgusted they were after smelling a heavily soiled T-shirt bearing the logo of another local university. The shirt was seriously smelly: it had been worn for a week by a male research assistant during his daily workouts and in bed, and then sealed in a plastic container. By varying the instructions at the beginning of the study, the researchers manipulated the way students viewed themselves, emphasising either their affiliation to their university or their general status as students. The students were far less grossed out when they thought of the T-shirt as belonging to a fellow student rather than a member of a rival university. Disgust is thought to have evolved as a biological mechanism that puts distance between us and anything that could potentially infect us. Knowing that someone is “one of us” appears to lower these natural biological defences, making it easier for us to get close to them. Reicher says this makes perfect sense, even with the heightened risk of picking up other people’s pathogens. “Imagine a tug of war team. How could you pull together effectively if you could not bear to touch other team members?” The fact that our perception of ourselves and others can affect a core biological response shows just how powerful group identities can be, and how malleable. Reicher thinks this has wide social and psychological implications. “It shows, for instance, that how we define who is part of our nation has implications at many levels for how we treat people.” Paul Rozin, who researches the biological and cultural evolution of disgust at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, has previously shown how our moral code can co-opt emotion, so that immoral things are considered disgusting and disgusting things are considered immoral. Rozin calls Reicher’s study “an interesting new finding” in that it appears to be the first to demonstrate the effects of group boundaries on physical – rather than moral – disgust. Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1517027113 More on these topics: