How Disgust Explains Everything

Two distinguished academics walk into a restaurant in Manhattan. It is their first meeting — their first date, in fact — and the year is 2015. The man wears a down jacket against the icy winter evening. The woman has a shock of glossy white hair. The restaurant is on a cozy corner of the West Village and has foie gras on the menu. What the man doesn’t know is that the interior of his down jacket has suffered a structural failure, and the filling has massed along the bottom hem, forming a conspicuous bulge at his waist. As they greet each other, the woman perceives the bulge and asks herself: Is my date wearing a colostomy bag?

They sit down to eat, but the woman is distracted. As they chat about their lives — former spouses, work, interests — the woman has “colostomy bag” on her mind. Is it or isn’t it? The two academics are of an age where such an intervention is, well, not exactly common, but not out of the realm of possibility. At the end of their dinner, the man takes the train back to Philadelphia, where he lives, and the woman returns to her apartment on the Upper West Side. Despite the enigma of the man’s midsection, the date is a success.

It wasn’t until their third date that the question got resolved: no colostomy bag. “I was testing her,” Paul Rozin, one of the academics, later joked, “to see if she would put up with me.” (He wasn’t testing her. He was unaware of the bulge.) “I was worried,” said Virginia Valian, the other academic.

It was fitting that an imaginary colostomy bag played a starring role in the couple’s first encounter. Paul Rozin is known for many things — he is an eminent psychologist who taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 52 years, and he has gathered honors and fellowships and published hundreds of influential papers and served on editorial boards and as chairman of the university’s department of psychology — but he is best known for his work on the topic of disgust. In the early 1980s, Rozin noticed that there was surprisingly little data available on this universal aspect of life. Odd, he thought, that of the six so-called basic emotions — anger, surprise, fear, enjoyment, sadness, disgust — the last had hardly been studied.

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