Magical Thinking and Food Revulsion

Carol Nemeroff studies why certain foods, such as feces-shaped fudge, pink slime, or recycled tap water, gross us out

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Many of the food outrages you’ve been reading about recently—pink slime in your hamburgers, insects coloring your Starbucks’ Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino, or the political frenzy over dog-eating—all revolve around revulsion. They’re foods more disgusting than they are dangerous. Similarly, there’s little evidence that low levels of arsenic harms chickens or the people eating them, but it sounds toxic, right? Policy makers wrestle with the popular notion that water recycling—going from toilet water to tap water—sullies otherwise refreshing drinking water.

What do they all have in common? Magical thinking.

Carol Nemeroff is a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern Maine who has, among other things, studied how we react to drinks in which a dead, sterilized cockroach has been dipped or how we react to fudge in the shape of dog feces. These studies, she suggests, demonstrate two kinds of magical thinking. The law of contagion describes how, in the absence of any perceptible differences, we get grossed out by a food’s history of contact. The law of similarity describes how we get grossed out when something benign resembles something disgusting. I talked with her recently about how we think about eating.

Food & Think: Despite the proliferation of exposés and shocking facts about our food—say, how barbaric slaughterhouses seem to those of us far removed from the process—we’re somehow persuaded at the supermarket that meat is pure and clean and perfectly acceptable to eat.

Nemeroff: In order to undo the connection, what we can do is to frame certain things out of awareness. Framing is a technical term from cognitive psychology. The supermarket is a great example: You see neatly packaged hamburger, you do not see dead muscle tissue from a previously living cow. The way that it’s presented is divorced from its history. This is exactly what we want to figure out how to do with recycled water because in the water’s case, it would be a good thing to do. With the case of meat, when people go to the Middle East or Europe and they go to a meat market, they’re shocked because they see a whole cow or a whole chicken, with feet, beak and head. The response they experience is revulsion because it highlights—no, simply, it doesn’t hide the fact—that this is a previously living animal, or sometimes even a still-living animal. So you can frame out of awareness all those elements that interfere with people’s desire to buy it and eat it. We have to do that. If you couldn’t do this, you would end up with a version of OCD —if we were to think about contagion every time we touch a doorknob or we’re in an elevator breathing someone else’s air or we think about how many hands touched our money. We frame naturally, but by manipulating the framing you can determine what things people focus on and what things they don’t.

Photo of dog stew (cc) by Flickr user avlxyz

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