On BioScience and Life and Such

OFF-switch #2 (Disgust)

In FDH-OFF project on February 9, 2023 at 12:09 pm

Update 5 on the Fear-Disgust-Hate project

Update 1 established that reading can, activate aspects of the fear-response.

Update 2 looked into possible ways of treating fear based on non-pharmaceutical therapy methods, and listed a first draft of standard-short-text responses.

Update 3 expanded the list of standard-short-text responses based on methods for everyday use outside of the therapy room.

Update 4 established that disgust, although similar to fear in eliciting a response in a reader, is a different response on account of the more social nature of the triggers.

Next: Make a draft of disgust OFF-switches.

Disgust is a multifactorial construct consisting of disgust propensity and disgust sensitivity. Disgust propensity (DP) is the ease with which a person becomes disgusted, while Disgust sensitivity (DS) refers to the degree of negativity associated with the elicitation and experience of disgust, or in other words, the emotional vulnerability that reflects how concerned an individual is by being disgusted (ref. 1).

Both the propensity and sensitivity varies not only between individuals as such, but seems to be dependent on social status. The higher your social status the more likely you are to feel entitled to feeling disgusted. This based on the cost of narrowing your social network (through being disgusted by them), which is presumably lower for those with high social status (ref 2).

OFF-switches then, need to be tailored to the targeted individual. The higher status of that individual, the more entitled to disgust they feel (high propensity and sensitivity) and the OFF-switch signals must be powerful enough to meet this increased resistance.

Disgust further differentiates from fear in that it is suspended when the trigger comes from someone we are close to. We change our baby’s diaper, even though it is disgusting. From ref 3: “This suspension of disgust establishes intimacy and may even strengthen love and community”. Intimacy then, can act as an automatic OFF-switch, but one it may be difficult to use in the standard-short-text format we used for fear.

Themes with a better potential as OFF-switches include:

  • Social “unlearning” (seeing that others are not disgusted, like watching someone you otherwise learn from, eat something you think is disgusting or seeing them interact with someone you categorize as disgusting, ref 4).
  • Counteracting a “sympathetic magic” reaction. Sympathetic magic operates through the “law of contagion” (i.e., once in contact, always in contact) and the “law of similarity” (i.e., an object is contaminated due to its similarity to another previously contaminated object).
  • Counter-conditioning. In counter-conditioning the trigger is repeatedly paired with a trigger of the opposite valence from the original trigger. For example, for a maladaptive evaluative conditioned trigger (a trigger coupled to a neutral stimulus) like “uncleanliness” coupled to “immigrants”, you would present the opposite, i.e. clean/healthy immigrants. For this to work the counter-conditioning stimulus needs to be very pleasant (ref 5 and ref 6).
  • Revaluation. In revaluation the trigger is paired with another stimulus, and the value of the trigger is changed. For example, for if a maladaptive evaluative conditioned stimulus (a co worker) like “bad person” has been coupled to a another co-workers affirming evaluation as “yes, a bad-person”, you would present a change in the second co-workers evaluation as “not such a bad person after all”, and the result would be that you get a more positive view on the original “bad person” (ref 5 ).

A first draft of standard short text OFF-switches for disgust, based on the above themes:

  • I see you are disgusted by [this topic/behavior], but it is interesting to notice that other members of [your community] are not.
  • I notice you are disgusted by [this world view], but I know wonderful people with the same view.
  • You feel that his behavior is degrading, but the same behavior has helped me and others, many times. Could it help you too ?
  • I think you confuse this [object/behavior/personal trait] with this other benign [object/behavior/personal trait]. Even though they are similar they may not both be disgusting.
  • I understand that you are disgusted by this [person, object], but many good friends speak highly of [object/person]. Maybe [object/person] is not so bad after all.
  • I see that you think this [person/behavior/object] is disgusting, but I have experienced [person/behavior/object] in this [other setting] and it was a wonderful experience.

Next post will expand and modify this list based on recommendations for disgust-reduction from non-scientific sources.


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