Disgusted of South London

A restless night’s sleep took me toward’s BBC 5Live’s fantastic Up All Night in the wee small hours of Sunday night/Monday morning (2nd March), and their Breaking Science segment.

This week’s show highlighted an article in the current issue of the journal ‘Science’, exploring our psychological reactions to the emotion of moral disgust, based on research undertaken at the University of Toronto (Rozin, Haidt and Fincher, 2009).  The article explores whether there is a link between this reaction, and our more physiologically based disgust to things like vomit, faeces – enough, enough, you get the picture.

The video above illustrates differences between responses to the emotions of fear and disgust, but you will find further video explanation in a news report about the research in the New Scientist.

My interest in the emotion of disgust started last year when I was teaching creative advertising students a unit on persuasion and influence.  I became fascinated by the idea that it would only be a matter of time before advertisers would resort to using images generating physical disgust in order to stimulate a response from us, such was the saturation of more mainstream images of fear and guilt.  Physical disgust also has the plus of being less ‘hit and miss’ than the emotions of humour, guilt and fear.

This fascinating research would appear to demonstrate some kind of link between out emotional responses to both moral and physical disgust, although the earlier video comparing fear and disgust would appear to suggest that if we did start to use disgust as a new message factor in PR and advertising messages, the degree to which we close down sensory responses may inhibit message digestion.  However, if all we are trying to do is get noticed, then we may have already delivered to brief – and created a few follow-up headlines to boot too.  Message digestion may need not necessarily concern us anyway.  For those PR and psychology students reading, that’s the Elaboration Likelihood Model for you.

I’ve attached links to reports on this research on the Discovery Channel, on CBS News, and CBC News in Canada.  If the responses we exhibit to moral and physical outrage are linked, it may not be so long before we start seeing stark imagery which plays on perceptions, designed to generate physical disgust, since our senses have long since become saturated by more mundane emotional messages in PR and advertising collateral.  Excuse me while I throw up.

When I posted this, the podcast of the show on for this particular week had yet to go live on the Breaking Science website.  I thoroughly recommend waiting to have a listen, or signing up so that you can when it goes live.

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