An alien ripping through Sigourney Weaver’s stomach. A psycho stabbing Janet Leigh in the shower. Most would agree these classic film scenes are pretty disturbing, so why do we watch them?
It’s because of the way we’ve evolved as a species, says Bridget Rubenking, assistant professor of radio and television at UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication. Rubenking decided to study disgust during a social psychology class while she was earning her doctorate, where she developed a fascination with the phenomenon of why people spend time watching films that make them feel sick.
To study the complex emotion, Rubenking, along with researchers at Indiana University, conducted an experiment with 130 undergraduates who were shown unpleasant material. The participants’ physiological reactions were then measured through their heart rate, skin arousal and facial muscle activity.
Rubenking also measured participants’ memory for content introduced before, during and after the media was shown, which revealed that participants experienced much greater engagement, both physically and cognitively. In fact, emotionally triggering scenes can actually increase the desire to pay attention.
Historically, disgust has been a learning tool for our species, and Rubenking said it is an emotion tied to our own evolution.
“We pay attention to these disgusting things so we don’t become disgusting things,” she said. “From an evolutionary perspective, variability increases the chances of survival. And we need people who are super grossed out to keep the world a cleaner and purer type of place.”
Another emotion tied very closely with disgust is fear, something Teresa Lynch, Rubenking’s friend and colleague at Indiana University, has studied very closely. Lynch’s research on emotion and media has centered on fear reactions in video games, finding that the immersion in the game not only caused fear, but also enhanced it. You potentially become more immersed in the content, making the threats seem more dangerous.
“We developed these responses very early in our evolution because without them, we wouldn’t be able to appropriately respond to threats in our environment,” she said. “These emotions tell us to get away, stay away and pay attention. Crucial for survival.”
Deanna Ferrante is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future.