Rachel Herz


On her book That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion

Cover Interview of February 20, 2012

The wide angle

The general rubric under which the concepts of this book are laid out is evolutionary biology.  The core positions are about how and why the emotion of disgust aids in our survival.

However, a parallel argument is that disgust is not innate and not necessarily universal—rather disgust is the “instinct” that has to be learned.  Thus, That’s Disgusting straddles the nature–nurture divide.  At the same time, I reveal how there are numerous oddities that the emotion of disgust compels which defy both culture and biology—most particularly how we are lured by, attracted to, and manipulate others with disgust.

There were several intertwined motivations that drew me to the topic and ultimately to writing That’s Disgusting.

The first instigator was actually a joke.  Several years ago, I was invited to be the celebrity judge for the National Rotten Sneakers Contest in Montpelier, Vermont, an annual contest held since 1975 that is notable enough to be listed in the Farmer’s Almanac.  I was told that my job would be to sniff the sneakers of kids from around the country who had already won their regional odoriferous challenges and then to decide who had the stinkiest footwear of them all.  Before I left for Vermont, many of my friends cajoled me with questions: “How will you be able to stand it?” “How could you have agreed to such a thing?” “Won’t it be just too disgusting?”  I started to joke with them that I was doing it as research for the sequel to the book I had just written, The Scent of Desire, and that now I was going to write “The Scent of Disgust.”  This is not quite what happened, but ultimately this quip set the ball in my mind rolling about writing a book on disgust.

Behind that joke, I had long been intrigued by disgust from what I had learned from Paul Rozin, a colleague and friend at the University of Pennsylvania, whom I had the privilege to share interests with many years before.

With regard to my preparation for writing the book, disgust shares many commonalities with the sense of smell—such as how context, culture, situation, language, meaning and personality shape our experience and interpretation of it.  I believed that my insights in smell would give me access to a different perspective on disgust than most experts in the field, and enable me to use the sense of smell as a guide for my understanding of this unusual emotion.  Since I hadn’t already dedicated a career to disgust, I felt I could bring a fresh view to the topic but also have the same questions and curiosity about disgust that any interested reader would.  Disgust, also turns out to be a great way to examine the interplay between biology and psychology, which are the constructs of being human that I am most intrigued by.