Friday, September 23, 2011

The Rules: Seven Motifs of Disgust

[Warning: This post offers no deep spiritual insights. Contains references to adolescent humor.]

The house rules have been posted on our refrigerator since 2005:

1. If you open it, close it.
2. If you use it up, throw it away.
3. Put it in the hamper.
4. Flush.
5. No Greek choruses.

Last year, when I was writing this piece on urban legends of chemistry we added an unwritten rule to the list. Conversation invoking one of the seven motifs of disgust were banned at the dinner table.

Tonight The Boy asked me if I could list the seven motifs for him. "Uh, not off hand, why?" "In Latin class today my teacher told us three topics that should never be raised in polite conversation and I told her that at my house the seven motifs of disgust were banned. When she asked what they were, I told her the only one I remembered was bestiality."

Oh, no. Now I wonder just what this teacher thinks we talk about at the dinner table.

The legendary seven 'motifs' of disgust were described in a paper by a colleague ("Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: a scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors" Haidt, McCauley and Rozin, Person. Indiv. Diff. 16, 701-713 (1994)). I promised The Boy I would look them up, so here goes (with examples mostly drawn from conversations vetoed under the policy at our dinner table similar to the items on the "official" scale - these are not for the faint of heart, and after reading them you may understand why I ban the topics).

Food: Eating olives and vanilla ice cream at the same time.
Animals: You are walking barefoot and step on something that Fluffy left on the mat.
Body Products: I have teen-aged I need to say anything else?
Sex: (This is the bestiality one...and no, we don't talk about that at the table, it's just what they invoke when I bring up the Seven Motif ban.)
Envelope violations: Remember when The Boy cut his foot and....
Death: Picking up one of Fluffy's offerings...
Hygiene: Learning that someone else was using your toothbrush in the (mistaken) belief it was his.
Sympathetic Magic: Thinking that tongs that have been used to pick up a dead mouse can be used for food if well washed (a proposal actually made by a male person in my house and which I firmly squashed)

And who said that psychology research is merely an academic exercise?


  1. this is wonderful, may I share it with my offspring? No longer living at home, but we meet and eat, frequently!

  2. I am reminded of some of the undergrad research I did with Rick. Most of it was on the prevention of violence in political movements, but the other bit was on disgust.

    My all-time favorite statement he put on one of his questionnaires, for people to rate their level of disgust, was: Using a brand-new, perfectly clean, never-used fly-swatter to stir soup. ;-)

  3. That's the same instrument this paper is about Stasa!

    That's my all time favorite from the list, too. My runner up is "You see someone put ketchup on vanilla ice cream, and eat it."

  4. Just curious, why you say seven when there are eigth?

  5. Hee! I am somehow not hugely surprised.

    I will go ahead and share this, then: For a few years, I lived in Ardmore and worked in Swarthmore and relied on public transit. During the term, I often walked to Haverford and took the Swat van, but when school wasn't in session, I took one bus to 69th Street and then took the 109 bus.

    The 109 bus was then famous for its... characters.

    One day as I was heading inbound after a really stupid day at work, on a hot July day, when the bus was exceptionally raucous, there was a... fellow... whose idea of humor involved a perfectly clean plastic model of excrement, which he would place various places to trap unwary new passengers as they boarded the bus.

    On one hand, I was horrified. On another, my research self was vastly interested. On the non-existent third hand, I just wanted to pick it up (as he himself was sometimes doing) and do something really outrageous which would point out to the entire bus that it was plastic and nothing to be afraid of at all.

    I did nothing much at all, and the miscreant did subside fairly quickly.

    But I thought of Rick.

  6. I have teens as well--LOVE this! I could probably define the 7 motifs with examples I've encountered at our dinner table as well ;)