It is automatic for most people to cringe at the sight of a person with a facial disfigurement. Facial disfigurements such as cleft lips, unsightly birthmarks, psoriasis among many others evoke reactions of disgust in us. We tend to distance ourselves from them or even avoid them completely even when we know their conditions are not contagiuos. A recently conducted study absolves us of the blame placing it squarely on an inborn disease avoidance system that works to prevent us from contracting diseases and infections from the environment. Psychologists and researchers who have been investigating the source of this disgust have likened this disgust to fear. Valerie Curtis says that fear evolved to keep us away from predators and any other animals that posed an external threat. Curtis is a behavioral scientist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She likens fear to disgust saying that disgust evolved to keep us away from animals and organisms that pose an internal threat for example disease causing organisms. According to her, our minds are constantly and subconsciously scanning the environment for threats which when percieved prompt reactions of disgust.
Going by this theory, our responses to people with contagious diseases such as influenza would have to be consistent with the reactions to people with facial disfigurements . However that is not usually the case implying that there is something fundamentally wrong with either the theory itself or the disease avoidance system. Some previously conducted studies attempted to explain this difference with respect to how we percieve different disfigurements. The findings were however inconclusive.
Psychologists in Sydney’s Macquarie University conducted various experiments to test this theory. Three videos of a person interacting with an inanimate object were screened to 98 volunteers. The actor in the first video looked perfectly healthy while the one in the second video had a port wine stain birthmark on his face. The third video featured an actor who had flu like symptoms. In each video the actors had a prop which they put into their mouths. The researchers then gave the props which included a snorkel, a harmonica and a towel to the volunteers and asked them to mimic as much as they could what they had seen in the videos. The objective of the experiment was to have them believe that the props had been used by the actors they had seen then see how far they were willing to go. The scientists found out that volunteers reacted in the same way to those props used by the sick and disfigured models. They wiped them and made disgusted faces frequently while they were at it. The props never came within an inch of their mouths and they treated with the same disgust regardless of who used them. This is despite the volunteers acknowledging in a questionairre filled prior to the experiment that they knew influenza was more disgusting and lethal than a birthmark.
In a report of the study yet to be published in the Evolution and Human behaviour magazine, scientists wrote that the facial birthmark acted as a disease cue that prompted the responses. Curtis acknowledges the findings of the study saying it affirms that disgust is primarily related to disease avoidance. Justin Park, a psychologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, said the study showed how oblivious we are to the underlying causes of our actions. Another psychologist from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Mark Schaller, weighs in on the study saying that the prejudicial reactions exhibited by the volunteers could be inborn.
The question that arises from all this is: “Can anything be done about this behaviour?” Justin Park believes that educational conditioning is the answer. He argues that people are not born with a database of disease signs. They are learnt with time through exposure. If people could get accustomed to disfigured people then the problem would be half solved. This he suggests can be achieved by showing images of disfigured people on TV more often. Schaller notes that these prejudicial reactions were more intense in people who felt vulnerable to disease. To this end he proposes adoption of health policies that would make people feel disease resistant. For instance, people who had been immunised against seasonal flu showed less prejudicial reactions.