Disgust and the fear factor

April 29, 2011

Dan Fessler has a strong stomach. He’s the evolutionary anthropologist featured in the latest Clever Apes, on the nature and origins of disgust. He says people vary widely in their sensitivity to disgust. This makes perfect sense – if you know any nurses (or butchers or sanitation workers or entomologists), you know that a person can train himself or herself out of the disgust response. At least for certain things: Even Dan Fessler has a weakness:

Fessler says most phobias elicit a combination of fear and disgust, with his needle phobia leaning toward the disgust side. Research shows that’s a common characteristic of blood/injection/injury-type phobias, and one that makes them harder to treat. Disgust seems to magnify a person’s anxiety about needle-sticks and the like, and evidence is growing that the disgust response ought to be addressed in addition to fear in any therapies.

It’s less clear how to attack the disgust response in other phobias, such as fear of spiders or insects. My suggestion: exposure therapy. Check out the faces in this video and it’s clear these people are not just scared, but grossed out. Also maybe embarrassed – or at least, they probably should be for going on this show:
 

 

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