There’s a scientific reason why your skin wants to crawl off your body when you hear the word “moist” and it has a lot to do with the word’s repulsive reputation.
Cognitive psychologist Paul Thibodeau took it upon himself to figure out why some people (about 18 per cent) are averse to the word and came up with three different hypotheses: the sound of the word, the connotation of the word, and the social transmission of the word — how it’s viewed in pop culture and society in general.
The findings? “The experiments provided the most support for a combination of the second and third possibilities: that aversion to “moist” may spread socially but it is also grounded in feelings of disgust toward bodily functions.”
It’s interesting to note that of those participants who said they were hated the word had several traits in common:
Women, younger people, and those with more education, who tended to score higher on measures of disgust toward bodily function and neuroticism (a personality trait characterized by increased feelings of anxiety, worry, anger and guilt), were particularly likely to find the word unpleasant.
Thibodeau’s study concludes that our harsh reaction to the word “moist” can be traced back to our natural disgust of bodily functions, which is strongly reinforced by society. The deeper meaning in this study found that disgust (of anything) is adaptive.
If we didn’t have an instinct to run away from vomit and diarrhea, disease would spread more easily. But is this instinct biological or do we learn it? Does our culture shape what we find disgusting? This is a complex and nuanced question. Significant work is needed to answer it definitively.
He says his study suggests that by their association with bodily functions alone, the symbols (words) we use to communicate can become contaminated and elicit disgust.
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For example, those who watched a video of handsome actors awkwardly saying the word “moist” reported being even more uncomfortable with the word versus those who watched a video of actors (no word if they were also handsome) using the word to describe cake. Says Thibodeau:
After watching the cringe-inducing video, people considered “moist” not only more aversive, but said that it was a word they used relatively infrequently and that the word had a more negative connotation. In other words, watching the video that made “moist” seem aversive shifted the entire profile of the word to be more consistent with the perceptions of people who were already averse to the word.
How does it make you feel? Hot and bothered or just bothered?