ECOLOGIC : The treatment of disgust

02-Jun-2020 : Pavitra Sriprakash, Director and Chief Designer at Shilpa Architects Planners Designers writes a weekly column on Sustainability for The New Indian Express titled “ECOLOGIC”. This week’s article talks about behavioural Immunity – the human response of disgust to Corona virus and Sustainability.

Full article below: (Also available at The New Indian Express Website)

The treatment of disgust 

Coming out of our homes and being close to others feels yucky to a lot of us now. Anthropologists are finding that society’s collective “behavioral immune system” works in overdrive during times of crisis. Our immune systems aren’t the only weapons we have against the coronavirus. Actions we take, like washing our hands or effectively covering up a sneeze, play a key role too. Similarly, the fear of being in close caontact with other people is also part of our behavioural immunity.

Sustainability too has a certain disgust associated with it. Disgust is an emotion that causes us to reject things — and that is why we can expect there to be little demand for the kind of “recycled” items which can be argued as one man’s waste and another’s treasure. So, let us ask the question — While disgust may be stopping you from touching surfaces now in fear of disease, is it also inadvertently stopping you from living sustainably? How can we overcome this to make more sustainable lifestyle choices?

The first thing to do is to understand disgust — it too has evolved as a part of our behavioural immune system and plays a role in our judgement and habits — anything that requires us to make a choice. Most of the time, disgust works well. For example, it encourages us not to eat spoiled food, which could make us sick. It is, however, an extremely blunt tool. It helps us act instinctively but often evokes an overly conservative response — which could often be wrong.

This yuck-factor is a major deterrent while making eco-friendly choices. If we are given a choice to pick between perfectly-sized, shrink-wrapped, sterilised vegetables and ones that are loose, muddy, oddly shaped and small — we are more likely to pick the embellished option over its ugly sister. This may have more toxins, use plastic packaging and overall just be a wasteful choice. So, while it may seem like an irrational barrier to a sustainable choice, it is in effect an automatic response to a primitive behavior engrained within us.

This is where behavioural immunity steps in. Studies show that there are various levels of disgust — some people seem more sensitive to it than others. This response is also moulded by our society — it could be cultural, and one could adapt at an early age. But once these responses are established, people become more resistant to change.

There are three basic approaches that can help overcome this issue. The first is ‘masking’ and works on the idea that presenting the idea in a palatable way can make a huge difference — for example people are more likely to pick “responsibly sourced water” instead of a bottle of “treated wastewater”. The second approach focuses on how people think about it by educating and reasoning with argument against disgust. The third and final approach is to work on emotions that are opposite of disgust — such as compassion for example.Despite our evolutionary instincts, there are ways we can overcome the yuck factor as we come back to our lives embracing the earth with the virus in it — don’t say yuck, say yes and live responsibly..