Spiritual Pollution, Part 3: A drop of urine and the "logic" of contamination


Last post I discussed how "irrational" disgust/contamination psychology can be. But in truth, disgust/contamination has a kind of emotional "logic." By "logic" I mean a set of fairly predictable "rules" that govern the mechanics of the disgust response. Understanding these rules will prove important when we later move on to consider sociomoral disgust, where the contamination logic gets applied to people.

To start, the Latin origin of the word disgust means "to taste bad." But disgust is more than simple distaste. Rather, disgust involves some attribution of "pollution" or "contamination." These contamination appraisals are highly variable across cultures but, once they settle in during the early childhood years, they prove difficult to dislodge.

For example, most Americans would be disgusted to find a hair in their food at a restaurant. Not all cultures feel this way, but Americans do, and, once the appraisal of contamination in made (i.e., "Ick! There is a hair in my food!") the food is considered to be, for all practical purposes, inedible.

Thinking of this example, and the cockroach and juice example from our last post, we can begin to survey the logic of disgust/contamination. For our purposes, I'm going to focus on FOUR PRINCIPLES OF CONTAMINATION:

First, attributions of contamination usually involve CONTACT between what is offensive and what is "clean."

Second, the directionality of effect is toward the negative. Called NEGATIVITY DOMINANCE, the offensive object always contaminates the clean object. The flow of cause and effect is one-way: The contaminant will pollute the pure object. It doesn't work the other way around. (This will be important later when we look at the gospel narratives where Jesus does reverse the flow of contamination: Contact with Jesus purified the unclean rather than making Jesus unclean. This reversal is exceedingly rare. It can be viewed, from a psychological point of view, as a "miracle"; that is, a reversal of "psychological law.")

Third, contamination is PERMANENT. Once you find the hair in the food there is nothing you can do to the food to make it okay.

Fourth, DOSE INSENSITIVITY suggests that it doesn't take much of a contaminant to render a whole food item polluted. To quote an illustration from the disgust literature: "A drop of urine in a bottle of wine will ruin the bottle of wine. But a drop of wine in a bottle of urine will do nothing to make the urine drinkable." To sharpen this point, imagine a whole swimming pool of clean wine and you see me drop in one drop of urine at the far end. Would you like to get a bottle of wine from the pool from the near end? Probably not. (Note as well that this example also illustrates negativity dominance: Urine ruins wine and wine does nothing to urine.)

To conclude for today, you might not see where all this is going. But I bet, if you look at this list and think about people who are considered "contaminants" or sins that are viewed as failures of purity (e.g., Which sins are uniquely structured by the "purity metaphor"?), you will begin to see how knowing how the logic of contamination works might prove very valuable in helping us think about how we experience sin and sinners in our lives.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

3 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 3: A drop of urine and the "logic" of contamination”

  1. I would assume a rational person understands the idea of sifting out the “inappropriate, ineffectual, disposable” part without throwing the baby out with the bath water. Dealing with relationships is further complicated by the point in time and space the individual is. One simply can’t dissociate with everyone based upon an unrealistic projected set of criteria.
    Is it true, to love a person means to love the whole person, in a true unconditional way? Should I point out another’s failings? In an altruistic way, hoping to assist? Or should I be steadfast in my own resolve giving each person their individual right to explore their self – foibles and all…
    The only true contaminate is that of the mind…

    Lisa

  2. Great idea for a blog Richard! Seeing your ideas on the web will curve the withdrawal symptoms I've experienced for theopsychological musings since graduation.

    The dose insensitivity characteristic illustrated by the wine/urine analogy shares some similar traits to the hawks/doves theory. Just as a little spoils the batch, a few hawks take over a dove colony.

  3. Richard:

    Jesus does reverse the flow of contamination: Contact with Jesus
    purified the unclean rather than making Jesus unclean. This reversal is
    exceedingly rare.


    I believe it's because Jesus appeared to destroy the devil’s work, so the flow by which the contaminant pollutes that what is clean is inherently evil, that's it, not coming from the Holy One.

    I apologize for my English, so Catalan is my mother tongue.

Leave a Reply