Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is economic repugnance closely related to biological disgust?

Colleagues often send me articles related to this blog, but the one I have received the most copies of recently is yesterday's NY Times article: Survival’s Ick Factor, about recent studies related to the emotion of disgust, and its possible evolutionary significance in e.g. keeping people away from sources of infection such as feces.

Many people have sent me the article because of my own interest in ickonomics, aka repugnant markets and transactions. A repugnant transaction is one that some people want to engage in, and others think they shouldn't be allowed to. I'm willing to exclude the case of ordinary, pecuniary negative externalities. The issue that initially made all of this very salient to me is the ban, almost everywhere, on buying and selling kidneys (which generated my interest in kidney exchange). But I quickly realized that there are lots of repugnant transactions, and I began a 2007 article on the subject by asking why you can't eat horse meat in California. (It's against the law, passed by popular referendum in 1998.)

Which brings me to the point of this post.

I don’t think the kind of repugnance I study is fundamentally related to biological/evolutionary disgust. The reason there are laws against eating horsemeat, for example, is that it isn’t innately disgusting, so some people want to do it, and others don’t want them to. But there aren’t any laws against eating feces…(sorry, yuck).

Now, I bet that your brain is economical, and that you might recruit some of the same neurons you use to feel disgust to remind you of things you don't like. So I'm not surprised that there are correlates between propensity to feel disgust and some political opinions, for example.

But, to come back to kidney sales, I can't see that the repugnance to selling transplant kidneys for money can be closely related to the disgust that may be inspired by transplantation itself (and the associated blood and guts), since transplantation itself is almost universally regarded as a good thing. That is, the part of the transaction that involves bodily fluids, and might inspire the kind of disgust that would keep you from contamination in other people's innards, isn't regarded as repugnant. Nor is kidney donation, which involves the surgical removal of a kidney. It's only the introduction of money into the transplant transaction that makes it repugnant. (And as we've recently seen with bone marrow, this repugnance to introducing money is alive and well, and crosses party lines.)

And I'm pretty sure there's no evolutionary disgust aroused by money (if only because money was invented pretty late in the evolutionary game...).

1 comment:

Bitsy said...

There are people who want to eat feces (this is the internet, you can find evidence of this with a search engine), and this is true of almost anything one can come up with that is gross or disgusting: there are people who want to do it. Disgust is also, as the article pointed out, learned. When I was child the idea of going into fountains in cities didn't disgust me. After three years of living in Dupont in DC it did. I'm sure that many children need to be taught not to eat feces (note what hook worm eradication programs need to train people not to do). The emotion of disgust may indeed be evolutionarily helpful, but what triggers that emotion is cultural and, as the article notes with hand washing, can be taught.

Which is to say: I think you dismiss the possible connection between disgust and repugnant transactions far to quickly here.