Researchers have shown that the level of disgust individuals find in others’ sweat may vary with group identification. These results will have interesting implications on the study of social exclusion and discrimination.
In a study published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, researchers from the University of St. Andrews and the University of Sussex, UK, have shown that the human capacity for cooperation may rest, in part, on a crucial, if unusual skill: our ability to overcome the disgust we feel for others.
The researchers have linked the emotion of disgust to an evolutionary instinct to avoid pathogens and protect against infection. As such, disgust is thought to mediate relations between social groups. To put it another way, this ability performs an important role in keeping people apart from ‘out-groups’ that may harbour unfamiliar or potentially harmful pathogens.
The study also highlights how people associate themselves to belong to a number of different groups at once. For example, fans of a specific football team may take part in heated rivalry with fans of competitor teams (think Manchester United and Manchester City, or Real Madrid and Barcelona) but come together as one large group to support their national team during international tournaments.
Researchers conducted two sets of experiments. In the first, they asked 45 female students at the University of Sussex to hold and smell a sweaty T-shirt bearing the logo of Brighton University (a neighbouring university to Sussex, and as such one where there is a friendly rivalry) and report how disgusting they found it on a scale of one to seven.
Some students were told that they were participating in a study measuring their ability to detect pheromones, activating their feelings of affiliation with all other students, including those from the rival institution. Other students were told that the research was testing their detection ability, priming them to think of the T-shirt as having belonged to a rival group. As a control condition, the students were told that the study was only looking at individual ability, not group ability.
The results showed that the study participants were considerably less disgusted when they considered the sweaty T-shirt to come from a member of the same group (another student) compared with a member of a different group (a student from the rival Brighton University).
As the students felt the same amount of disgust when they perceived the T-shirt as having being worn by a general ‘outsider’ and when they were not led to think about different groups at all, the research team concluded that feelings of in-group affiliation reduced feelings of disgust. In essence, regarding someone as not a member of one’s group does not necessarily increase revulsion but the idea that an individual is ‘one of us’ may decrease it.
For the second experiment, conducted at St. Andrew’s University, student volunteers were given a similar task, with the T-shirts described simply as shirts worn by students in general, or as being worn by students at the local rival institution, the University of Dundee.
In a twist from the first experiment, rather than rating their feelings of disgust when smelling the shirts, the participants were instead asked to wash their hands. The researchers saw that students who had been told they were smelling T-shirts from Dundee students, a distinct outsider group, went to the sink faster and used more soap.
‘We are looking at what makes group cohesion possible,’ commented Stephen Reciher, a social psychologist at St Andrews University and the lead author of the study. ‘In many ways, disgust is the social ordering emotion. It’s the emotion that keeps people apart, and if you want people to come together, you have to attenuate disgust.’
He also expanded further on how the results highlight the evolutionary instinct to avoid illness: ‘The lowering of disgust may lead people to lower their guard in practices that contributed to spreading infection – more willingness to share food and drink, to stay near ill people and not turn away if they cough, and so on.’