The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is spending over $100,000 studying disgust, hypothesizing that all bullying behavior begins with feelings of revulsion.
Researchers at Columbia University want to see if they can "successfully regulate" disgust emotions in teens in order to stop bullying.
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"Whether it's being the victim, being the perpetrator, or having to watch this upsetting cycle of peer rejection and victimization, few adolescents are unaffected by bullying's harmful impact," a grant for the project states. "This effect can last long past adolescence, as both being the bully and being the victim are linked to the development of both short- and long-term anxiety and depressive disorders."
The researchers believe disgust leads to "homophobic, sexist, and racist attitudes," and hope to determine when the emotion enters the "moral toolbox."
"At some point during development, individuals begin to consider actions and behaviors that do not involve others being directly harmed to be morally wrong (e.g. homosexuality)," the grant said. "In adults, this type of non-harm based moral condemnation is often underpaid by disgust, an emotion that has been linked to increased homophobic, sexist, and racist attitudes. However, when disgust begins to enter the moral toolbox and how it informs moral condemnation and social rejection within childhood and adolescence remains unknown."
"We will test a model that proposes that the relationship between disgust, moral condemnation, and social rejection is a learned one that reaches its peak during adolescence, a period marked by increased emotional reactivity and social hierarchical concerns," it said.
The project will examine "how disgust sensitivity changes over time," and use MRIs to measure brain activity when a person thinks something is disgusting.
"We hypothesize that adolescents (as compared to children and adults) will be particularly impacted by disgust during socio-moral judgment, due to increased emotional reactivity coupled with relatively immature prefrontal regulatory regions," the grant said. "We further predict that, as disgust is a motivating emotion behind bullying behavior and the rejection of lower-status individuals, these behaviors will be more prevalent during adolescence."
The study, which began last year, has cost taxpayers $107,379 so far. The budget for the project will not expire until August 2016.
The researchers believe determining what teenagers find disgusting can have far-reaching impacts.
"Both bullying and being bullied has been linked to long-term anxiety and depressive disorders, and adolescent victims of bullying behavior are at greater risk for committing suicide," the grant said. "Thus, gaining a better understanding of how moral condemnation and social rejection develops—and if the emotions that cause them can be successfully regulated—is of primary importance to curbing bullying behavior and its negative psychological and societal outcomes."