Will our disgust for germs get the best of us? A psychologist weighs the risks and benefits of human touch in a pandemic.
BRAD D. STRAWN | JUNE 16, 2020
Republished from Christianity Today
Imagine you are offered a fresh glass of orange juice, but just before you are handed it, an experimenter drops a roach in the juice, stirs it around, removes the roach, and hands you the glass. Would you drink it? Of course, you wouldn’t. But now imagine the experimenter takes that same glass of juice, runs it through a filter used to clean tap water, boils and sterilizes the juice, and filters it again. Will you now drink the juice? If you are like most people who were a part of this experiment, you wouldn’t. You intellectually know the juice is “clean,” but for some visceral reason, you can’t get yourself to drink it. This instinctual reaction is what psychologists define as disgust, and this response is referred to as contamination psychology. When it comes to disgust, our reason and our contamination psychology can be at odds with one another.
Now imagine that the issue isn’t one of juice and roaches, but of an unseen virus and contact with those that may or may not be carrying the virus. What if this virus is possibly deadly? Would you be willing to come into contact with these people, shake their hands, or attend a worship service with them?
Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci recently stated that Americans should never shake hands again—and he’s speaking about after the coronavirus pandemic. Fauci stated that infectious diseases, such as influenza, could be significantly reduced by eliminating shaking hands. Biologist and Gordon professor Craig Story points out, albeit more gently, that better hygiene practices at church could help prevent the spread of diseases.
However, according to contamination psychology, there is a possibility of overreacting and ending up with a deficit of human touch necessary for our mental health. The question we must immediately ask as the first wave of infections is waning: is it worth the risk to engage in hugs and handshakes at church? Or what about the “passing of the peace,” the laying on of hands, or anointing with oil? For some, gathering, fellowshipping, recreating, and worshipping are back in some form; for others, they are not. As we now have evidence that church attendance and even financial giving actually remained steady during this time of virtual church, it may seem safer to stick with streaming services during this lull.
But what about beyond: when it’s declared over, how will humans interact? Will we prefer the safety of eliminating all physical touch and close proximity? Will we still desire to Skype or Zoom into meetings just to be safe? How do we navigate socially along the ups and downs of bell curves of infection cases, hospitalizations and death?
The Hidden Logic of Disgust
There is a great diversity of opinions about what composes safe behavior. Public health expert Daniel Chin advised strict modifications to meeting in person at churches based on local health data. And like Fauci, some epidemiologists argue that safety and protection are paramount and therefore we must refrain from activities that threaten our lives. Last week, TheNew York Times asked 511 epidemiologists when they foresee being able to hug, have a dinner party, or go on vacation again, among other activities. Answers were spread over a wide range, but 42 percent expect to give up hugs and handshakes for more than a year, while 39 percent anticipate a wait of 3-12 months. In this view, close contact must be monitored, and it is safer to resign ourselves to the new virtual world.
If some in the general public respect the opinion of Fauci and other experts worried about physical contact, that may relate to a deeper unconscious motivation found in the “psychology of disgust.” Illness and death are a couple of things that trigger disgust. It may be that the little colorful, spiky coronavirus protein we see every day on the TV is triggering disgust in us all.
Disgust serves important functions in humans. Core disgust acts like a boundary system helping humans know what to incorporate into their bodies, protecting them from ingesting dangerous substances. But further than that, the dynamic leads to withdrawal and avoidance all the way to rejection, expulsion, and elimination. Ultimately it helps us avoid discomfort and death.
But disgust also has a “promiscuous” aspect in which it becomes linked to a variety of other stimuli, including moral (e.g., disgusting behaviors), social (e.g., disgusting people), and religious circumstances (e.g., one must avoid disgusting immorality). Disgust has a kind of irrational logic, what Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University calls “magical thinking.” Beck says it’s “magical” because we begin to believe that what is disgusting can contaminate us in ways that are unrealistic. Beck notes, “The problem comes when the logic of ‘contact’ begins to be applied in situations where it shouldn’t apply.”
While core disgust begins with something like a virus, the irrational logic of disgust can quickly spread from germs to people. Paul Rozin and colleagues described how this magical thinking results in the logic of disgust and the four principles of contamination: First, contact will always lead to contamination. Second, even microscopic amounts of the contaminated element are harmful; this is referred to as dose insensitivity. Third, permanence, which implies that once something (or someone) becomes contaminated, it can’t be purified. And last, negativity dominance, a belief that when a contaminant and a pure object come into contact the contaminant is stronger and ruins the pure object. Despite one’s rational knowledge that contamination is not realistic (the juice has been sterilized), the logic of contamination creates a visceral feeling we just can’t shake.
A not-too-distant example is the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. When AIDS first emerged and the public knew little about it, sufferers were avoided and shunned by others who feared contamination. Even as accurate information about transmission emerged, people were still afraid. AIDS patients felt others’ disgust.
While it might be hard to imagine that anyone would label potential carriers of COVID-19 as disgusting, one need only remember the anti-Asian sentiment seen at the beginning of the outbreak. While those responses were clearly racist and unjustified, all the mixed and misinformed messages regarding the virus combined with the logic of contamination makes it understandable how people might start looking at one another as potential contaminants. The logic of disgust would say it’s best to stay away! We might tell ourselves that the virtual world is “good enough” and that by limiting our contact with others we are being smart, safe, and wise, which, of course, we should be, but the magical-thinking logic of disgust suggests that we may be illogically overestimating the danger. Article continues below
The Importance of Touch
While disgust may repel us from one another, psychological literature is replete with studies demonstrating the importance of touch. Many are familiar with the story of the Romanian children raised in orphanages, where they were fed, diapered, and bathed on a regular schedule, but weren’t rocked, cuddled, or lovingly touched. Researchers who followed these children over a 14-year period discovered that the children showed major delays in language, cognitive functioning, motor development, and socio-emotional functioning, some severe enough to receive psychiatric diagnoses. Or consider Genie, a case study found in most introductory psychology textbooks. Genie was parented by a mentally ill father who strapped her to a potty chair, restricted her movement, and cut her off from all kinds of stimulation, including language. When Genie was rescued at the age of 13, she couldn’t walk or talk and appeared autistic. Genie’s deficits were not a result of low intelligence but rather a lack of human interaction.
Humans don’t just have relationships; relationships make us humans. We are wired for relationships, which includes physical proximity and touch. The infant brain goes through enormous amounts of development after birth based on interaction with the environment. Bonding begins through skin-to-skin touch releasing the bonding neurotransmitter oxytocin in both baby and parent. Research in infant-parent interactions demonstrates that these earliest experiences form attachment styles, shaping the way we relate to others clear into adulthood.
What about adults? Certainly, when our brains are fully developed, touch must be less important, right? Dacher Keltner, professor and executive director of the Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley, believes otherwise. Keltner believes that human touch is essential for communication, health, and bonding. In one experiment, Keltner physically separated two subjects by a wall so they couldn’t see one another. Subject one would place one arm through a hole in the wall. Subject two was given a list of emotions to attempt to communicate only by touching subject one’s forearm. While there was only an 8 percent chance of subject one correctly guessing the correct emotion, subjects in Keltner’s study were able to identify the emotion of compassion 60 percent of the time.
Touch may even increase generosity. Keltner mentions a related study, where participants play “the prisoners’ dilemma,” subjects had the choice to either cooperate or compete with a partner for a limited amount of money. Subjects who received a pat on the back right before starting the game were more likely to share their money with their partner.
Touch is even related to health. Adult-to-adult touching, same as parents and infants, also releases oxytocin, what some call the “love hormone,” increasing bonding and feelings of trust. Touch’s soothing impact has been linked to reducing cardiovascular stress, while hugs have been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, strengthening the immune system, according to research.
Touch is so central to being human that Susan K. Farber writes in Psychology Today that people are “seeking out their own ‘professional touchers’ and body arts teachers—chiropractors, physical therapists, Gestalt therapists, Rolfers, the Alexander-technique and Feldenkrais people, massage therapists, martial arts and T’ai Chi Ch’uan instructors. And some even wait in physicians’ offices for a physical examination for ailments that have no organic cause—they wait to be touched.”Article continues below
The View of Disgust from Scripture
If core disgust, which is about protecting us from death, can be linked to moral, social, and spiritual situations, some of the Pharisees’ behavior in the Gospels makes sense. The Pharisees were not simply overbearing legalists but were normal humans afraid of contamination (i.e., moral impurity). Core disgust became linked to certain behaviors and people via the irrational logic of contamination and subsequently led to fear of proximity and touch. It’s possible that post-pandemic, people might be tempted to remain isolated and satisfied with virtual worship as a thin disguise of disgust. But change will not come solely by knowing about contamination’s “magical thinking” and its promiscuous nature. We need new understanding and new behaviors we can imitate. In Scripture, Jesus offers us both.
Jews feared coming into contact with the unclean, but Jesus welcomes crowds of the sick/unclean (Matt.14:34–36; Mark 3:7–12; Luke 4:40). While Jesus could, and occasionally did, heal unclean individuals by words alone, it seems he preferred touching them. He touches lepers (Mark 1:40–44), he heals the blind and mute with spit from his own mouth (Mark 7:31–37; John 9:1–7), he reaches down and touches the dead (Luke 8:40–56), and the woman with the issue of bleeding is healed through touching Jesus (Luke 8:43–48). Touch is important to Jesus, and he uses it frequently with those considered untouchable. Perhaps touch is important to Jesus because not only does it heal, but it recognizes one’s humanity. In doing so, Jesus reconciles these people to a community that has previously looked upon and treated them with disgust.
In the Gospels, Jesus literally flies in the face of each of the four principles of contagion outlined by Rozin. He breaks the fear of proximity and dose insensitivity, the idea that even a tiny bit of contaminant ruins the whole. Jesus denies this logic by eating in the home of sinners and showing no discrimination with whom he interacts (Luke 19:1–10). The theory of permanence suggests “once contaminated, always contaminated,” but Jesus demonstrated time and again that anyone can be made clean (Luke 7:36–50; John 8:1–11). And finally, countering the logic of negativity dominance—the idea that the unclean dominates the clean, rendering it unclean—Jesus doesn’t fear coming into contact with the unclean. Either disease or sin could render others unclean, but he shows that he overcomes contamination and enables them to become clean.
Jesus doesn’t buy the logic of contamination and disgust. In example after example, not only does Jesus heal, through touch, but he makes the unclean clean. People are forgiven, healed, and returned to their communities, as good as new. Instead of following the natural impulses of disgust, avoiding, shunning, or even shaming, Jesus loves his neighbors through an act of radical hospitality. He moves toward those labeled unclean. Of course, ritual uncleanness and viral contagion are not the same thing, but we can still learn how to overcome disgust from Jesus’ example. The danger of a disease like COVID-19 is that the disgust will not remain in the realm of the biological but will promiscuously become attached to people, leading to avoidance, othering, and losing the benefit of touch, proximity, and church together.
Is It Worth the Risk?
Of course, we need to be wise and safe. Of course, we need to listen to experts in the field and follow the practices laid out by our leaders. This is not a call to flaunt the rules, as some have done in the guise of liberty—a thin concealment placing individual rights over communal responsibility. The questions remain: How shall we behave as we return to church services or gathering in some form? How can we make modifications to participate in community more fully again? Should we take measured risks? The research on touch and the example of Jesus shout yes. Disgust is a psychological strategy to protect us from illness and death. But to be human is to be vulnerable—we can’t avoid it entirely.
In the church, we are called to one day return to practicing vulnerability, in spite of fear, while passing the peace, laying on hands, sharing meals, and worshiping and doing life together. When we share the Eucharist, we remember Christ’s vulnerability, his radical hospitality toward us, the broken, the unclean. We remember that because of his death and resurrection we don’t have to fear. “He (Jesus) set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15).
When we remember this, we can boldly move, when the imminent danger is over, not only into our own churches but into our neighborhoods, practicing a radical hospitality. So, let’s look forward to greeting one another with a holy handshake or kiss, giving hugs, laying on hands, and anointing with oil. It is definitely worth it.
Brad D. Strawn is a psychology professor at Fuller Seminary, School of Psychology, a licensed psychologist, and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. His forthcoming book, with Warren Brown, Enhancing Christian Life: How Embodied Cognition Augments Religious Community, is published by InterVarsity Press.