Captivated by Disgust


Recent research found that people exposed to core disgusts, such as blood, guts and body products, were more attentive to disgusting content even though it provoked negative reactions.

Bridget Rubenking, Ph.D., associate professor of radio-television at the University of Central Florida, and Annie Lang, Ph.D., distinguished professor in the department of telecommunications at Indiana University, published their findings in the Journal of Communication from an experiment on 120 participants.
Participants watched television and film clips of three different types of disgust: socio-moral, body product and death/gore.

Rubenking and Lang measured participants’ heart rate, facial expression and skin moisture during the scenes. After the clips ended, the researchers tested participants’ memory of the scenes. Rubenking and Lang compared the differences in the participants’ memory and their physiological levels of activity before the disgust in each clip to time points immediately after. They then compared the data across disgust types.
The research suggested that socio-moral disgust elicited initial attention and increased negativity and arousal as the content continued. Social-moral disgust was better before, at and after the onset of disgust.

Both core disgusts saw more of a negative and defensive response.

Body product disgusts, in particular, showed an initial defense response pattern. Instead of sparking immediate attention, the onset of body product disgusts initiated sharp increases in negativity and arousal and an acceleration of heart rate, which indicated the content was, at first, too disgusting to pay attention to. The onset of core disgust messages served as a cognitive interrupt and made participants forget what they had seen before it.

Across all disgust types, memory improved at and after the onset of disgust. Heart rate showed a deeper deceleration over time, which showed that more attention was being paid to the content.

This data suggests, despite being fully aware of how disgusted they were, participants could not turn away from any of the disgusting content. The more disgusting the content, the more attention participants paid to it. The pattern was more pronounced in response to the core disgusts.

“We often choose to view entertainment media to simply make ourselves feel good, and we also likely often choose entertainment media that will provide meaning, fulfillment and spark introspection,” Rubenking said. “Despite whatever motives encouraged the decision to watch or not watch, this study demonstrates that when we’re watching entertainment content that introduces specific types of disgust, our bodies react as being disgusted, and we can articulate that we are disgusted by the content. However, we pay more attention once disgust is introduced and we remember the content with disgust better, making it a smart device for content creators to use, in moderation.”

The original article can be found here.

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