Psychologist Uncovers What Makes Us Cringe

Saturday, December 25, 2010

PHILADELPHIA (October 25, 2010) — Everyone knows the game. Turn out the lights, pass around a dried apricot and it’s easy to believe it’s a human earlobe. Peel some grapes and in the dark they feel just like human eyeballs. It’s a game that tricks the senses and it’s something that psychologist Alex Skolnick, Ph.D., has been doing in his lab for the last several years.

“Of all the human emotions, disgust has probably gotten the least play in the lab,” admits Skolnick, who says it was only in the early 90s that psychologists started researching the repugnant. “What I find fascinating about disgust is how it is tied to the imagination and the way it can be manipulated by social factors.”

Just say the word, “disgusting,” and your nose automatically crinkles, your lips purse tightly together, you might even squint your eyes. The look is understood universally. Skolnick knows it well. Using probes attached to his subject’s faces, Skolnick has been tracking the reaction of subject exposed to all things gross, seen and unseen.

Basically, Skolnick was curious to find out if the subjects in his lab would think things were disgusting just by feeling them. He was also interested to learn if gender played a role in how subjects responded.

What he discovered is that oftentimes humans equate unpleasant with disgusting, so much so that a blindfolded subject would stick their hand in a bowl of oily noodles and visualize a bowl of worms. He also uncovered an interesting social phenomenon: levels of disgust changed based on the gender of the person running the experiment.

“We found that women, put together in a room, were more likely to carry on about how disgusting something was,” Skolnick explained. “But paired with a male, women were likely to act braver, going as far as touching meal worms to their lips.”

The opposite sex pairing resulted similarly for men. Men paired with female experimenters tended to engage slightly more with a few of the disgusting objects.

In addition to learning that there are social rules associated with displaying disgust, Skolnick has also tracked differences in what men and women find disgusting.

“A hairy comb is scoffed at by women, while most men seem unfazed,” Skolnick adds.

In addition to his research on disgust, Skolnick, an assistant professor of psychology, is also interested in the relationship between positive affect and health, stress and coping and how health/medical knowledge affects health behavior.

Asked which item in his awful arsenal elicits the greatest disgust, Skolnick responds with a laugh, “Human hair pulled from a brush!”


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Kelly Welsh '05 (M.A.), Director of Communciations, College of Arts and Sciences, 610-660-1385,


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