SEATTLE – There's no need to feel there's something wrong with you if you recoil when foodie friends talk about the interesting delicacies they've tried: still-beating cobra hearts, soft-boiled fetal duck or even the more banal chocolate-covered crickets.
In fact, these reactions could keep you healthy. Disgust, it turns out, is good for you, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests revulsion could be the body's way of avoiding infection.
The idea is not new: Charles Darwin hypothesized that humans evolved a sense of disgust to help avoid tainted food, but this is the first study to have directly tested whether people with the greatest levels of repugnance will be exposed to fewer pathogens and thus suffer fewer current infections, according to a Washington State University write-up on the study.
Aaron D. Blackwell, an associate professor of anthropology at WSU and co-author of the study, surveyed 75 participants, ages 5 to 59, from three Indigenous Ecuadorian Shuar communities. The participants, who lived in 28 homes, were asked to rate their level of disgust on things like touching a dead animal, stepping in animal droppings or drinking a fermented corn drink, chicha, made in this instance by someone with rotten teeth chewing the corn and spitting it into water to let it ferment.
When the survey concluded, researchers discovered that people who had the greatest levels of repugnance had fewer levels of inflammatory markers in their blood tied to infection. "The higher the level of disgust, the lower the level of their inflammatory biomarkers indicative of infections," he said. "While the study shows that disgust functions to protect against infection, it also showed it varies across different environments, based on how easily people can avoid certain things."
Blackwell, along with a research team led by Tara Cepon-Robins of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, also found that levels of disgust went up when people had access to fresh water and purchased food and could afford to avoid disgusting things. But in the communities that relied more heavily on subsistence activities, there were lower levels of disgust.
Blackwell pointed out that the findings do not have bearing on every pathogen. Nevertheless, avoiding things that disgust you seems like a good overall bet.