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Harsh environments reduce disgust

Levels of disgust drop in just days when people are exposed to a harsh environment, new research carried out at the University of St Andrews has found.

The study, published this week by the journal Cognition and Emotion, found that disgust sensitivity depends on the environment.

Researchers Dr Carlota Batres, now of Franklin and Marshal College in the US, and Professor David Perrett, of the University of St Andrews, repeatedly tested students whose environment did not change as well as student cadets undergoing intensive training at an army camp.

For the students in the stable environment, disgust levels remained constant. At the army camp, the cadets reported increased levels of stress, physical strain, mental pressure and pain. For these cadets, the harsh training environment was accompanied by a decrease in disgust sensitivity.

After just three days in the training camp, the cadets found concepts like “seeing some mould on old leftovers in your refrigerator” less disgusting, despite not experiencing wounds, cockroaches, mouldy food or even increased levels of hunger. Other forms of disgust, such as disgust for immoral behaviours, remained unchanged.

Lead researcher Dr Batres said: “Pathogen (sources of infection) disgust sensitivity decreased from the start of the training camp and then remained constant at the lower level for the duration of the training camp, while the environment remained harsh.

“This suggests that in a harsh environment, where survival may be more difficult, pathogen disgust sensitivity may decrease to allow the consumption of available resources.”

Professor Perrett, who runs the Perception Lab in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, said: “While there is anecdotal evidence that at times of need disgust can be temporarily suspended in order to fulfil more immediate goals (e.g., cannibalism during the 1972 Andes plane crash, portrayed in the film Alive), this is the first study to provide evidence that in a matter of days, our disgust sensitivity can be supressed in order to better cope with our current circumstances.”


Photo caption: An image of mild disgust synthesised by the Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews.

The paper, Pathogen disgust sensitivity changes according to the perceived harshness of the environment, by C Batres and D Perrett is published in Cognition and Emotion, and available online.

Please ensure that the paper’s DOI (doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2019.1612735) is included in all online stories and social media posts and that Cognition and Emotion is credited as the source.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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