Monday, 30 May 2011

The Emotions: Disgust

My posting is going to be less frequent over most of the summer as I hit the conference trail, a Powerpoint-spangled stairway to the stars that's already taken me to Limerick and Amsterdam and will end up in Kyoto (and probably, complete exhaustion) after four or so more European venues. At the same time, all this activity makes me think about those magic moments when my scholarship and fandom identities merge.

I mean, when my hosts at a three-day course google me and find my number three hit is as a talking head expert on the indie documentary "True Fan" (I tried to explain the social identity of convention Klingons and stormtroopers) .... and then I end up talking D&D with one of the grad students over beers ... that's got to be telling me something.
There's no doubt that the most interesting emotion my lab studies is disgust. We find that disgust is an irrational emotion that defies our attempts to explain it reasonably. Disgust is also a many-branched emotion. Many different things that we learn by association set it off, and there really is no one way to sum up the kind of perceptions that will and will not cause disgust.

Really, any kind of environment creator - game designer, author, filmmaker, game master - works best with a ready handle on the audience's emotions. One of the easiest to manipulate is disgust. I mean:

This gimmick from the Modern Toilet restaurant chain in Taiwan relies on the inflexibility of disgust. Even though you know you are eating from a clean metal dish in a clean porcelain bowl, the toilet shape brings up all kinds of associations and disgust can't help but happen (worse if you are eating splashy, green-brown curry).

It follows that, while it may be hard to get angry, feel pleasure, or fall in love as your character in a game, disgust more readily pierces through the "Just a game" barrier. We feel disgusted even at blatant simulations of things that make us disgusted.

But does this mean we really get disgusted in character? Or just that we transfer our own revulsions to the setting? I'll explain how to work with this gap next time, when I write about Basic Disgust.


  1. I've felt "disgust" at ham-fisted attempts to make me feel "disgust" in media (including games) that simultaneously taken themselves too seriously. Not sure if that's the same type of digust or not though. :)

  2. Intriguing post. I look forward to reading more.

  3. Which lab is this? I'm intrigued: how much do you refer to anthropologists - specifically Mary Douglas? Or is she not all that relevant any more/to soc. sciences?

    Working the history end I find interdisciplinarity stretches only so far. But I'd love to know more about this research into emotions.

  4. @Stuart: That's esthetic disgust, with a sprinkling of contempt. ;)

    @richard: This is my professional page, could stand to be updated but gives a basic idea. I know the Douglas "matter out of place" argument but it was pretty well demolished by Royzman & Sabini in 2001. They show that pretty much every one-phrase explanation of disgust out there fails to cover all cases, or covers cases that are not disgusting (a drop of black paint in a bucket of white). I think you need a multi-functional theory that acknowledges that the emotion has been shaped by several forces of biological and social evolution.