Psychologist Fran Meeten explains how she found herself in a field at Bestival feeding willing volunteers dogfood and maggots, and what this all reveals about human nature. 

Picture this: It’s September and I’m listening to the rain pour down outside as I pack my camping gear. While I am seriously beginning to doubt the possibility of an Indian summer this year, my excitement at going to Bestival with Guerilla Science is not dampened. I begin to pack my essential festival items: two toilet brushes (unused), two cans of dog food (chicken flavour), some rather smelly dried fish from Iceland – and finally, I make a mental note to collect the live maggots when I get there. I’m now fully prepared to take part in the Guerilla Science Dirt season with our event, Disgusting Little Beasts.

When Guerilla Science contacted us at the University of Sussex, I had no idea that we would be able to make our work disgust quite literally come “alive”. Yet, on a Saturday afternoon at Bestival I found myself offering our two volunteers some very alive and kicking (well wriggling) maggots to pop in their mouths.

You may well be starting to wonder what the point of all this was? Well, those who were able to contain their disgust long enough to listen to the talk now know that there are many different types of disgust, and that disgust responses may play an important role in some of our most common fears and phobias. Disgust is probably more important in our lives than you would imagine: it is likely that the emotion of disgust evolved to prevent our ancestors from eating things that could kill them such as faeces, rotten food, and diseased or dirty water.

This type of core disgust can be linked to the feeling of revulsion we may experience when we see maggots writhing in rotting foods, or when we spit something out because it has gone off and it tastes bad. However, some foods are perfectly safe to eat – yet are still deemed disgusting. Our Bestival audience were treated to an examination of four types of disgust, which we were able to illustrate thanks to two volunteers both keen to be champion of the Guerilla Science disgust challenge.

First we embraced our animal-nature disgust. The basic assumption is that things which remind us that we are animals can elicit disgust. Just like many animals, humans need to eat, sleep, and have sex. Yet humans have also developed strict moral and social codes which ensure that people perform these actions in a culturally acceptable way. For example, we would not sleep in the same room as farm cattle, or eat the same food our dog eats. Which is why, for their first disgust challenge, our volunteers got stuck in to a can of dog food.

After the dog food, we thought our disgust challengers would probably be thirsty. So we mixed them some urine coloured drinks (apple juice) with special toilet brush stirrers.

The toilet brush was clean – so what’s the fuss about? While the toilet brush itself was not contaminated (it was new), its association with contamination is so strong that food stuffs which come into contact with objects associated with contamination can then themselves become unacceptable. This phenomenon is called the law of sympathetic magic.

While the looks of disgust on our volunteers’ faces signalled that the dog food challenge was – well – really quite disgusting, the second challenge did not pose too much of a problem for either of them, so we moved on to cultural disgust. Our volunteers tucked into fried giant grasshoppers (a popular Asian street food snack).

The audience, meanwhile, got to try some very fishy smelling dried haddock I had discovered on a recent trip to Iceland.

Disgust elicitors can differ between cultures and where a dog is considered a man’s best friend in one culture, it can also be on your dinner plate in another.

For the last challenge we returned to core disgust. Maggots are associated with substances that are inedible and are a sign of disease and decay. So we asked our participants to insert their hands into a box of wriggling maggots, which they both did!

We had a tie on our hands, so we went up a disgust level and asked them to put a maggot in their mouths, which they both did!

So, the final level: zoo-keeper Tim Maynard arrived with mealworms, larger (and debatably more disgusting) little beasts.

After some deliberation both our participants popped them in their mouths, but my dismay turned to delight when I saw the classic disgust rejection of spitting a wriggling meal worm out across the table – finally true disgust!

With the excitement of the disgust challenge over, I went on to discuss my main research interests: the role of the disgust emotion in psychopathology. The research lab at Sussex University led by Professor Graham Davey has explored the role of disgust in phobias to small animals, and I was keen to discuss how high disgust sensitivity may contribute to many common small animal phobias such as phobias of spiders and snakes – which was beautifully illustrated by Tim bringing a real snake for our audience to test their liking or loathing to.

By the end of the talk I was beginning to wonder about the effects of festivals on our disgust responses. It seems that hanging out in a field at Bestival (or should I say Beast-ival) lowered everyone’s disgust responses. Whether it was through acceptance, habituation, or over consumption of alcohol, I can’t be sure. But, I was happy to see that people faced their fears of our disgusting little beasts.