The ‘Ick’ Factor: How Disgust Influences Our Environmental Habits

Study reveals disgust drives frequent laundry habits, overshadowing environmental concerns, suggesting new sustainability strategies.

A newly released study from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has shed light on an intriguing dilemma: our cleanliness routines are often at odds with our environmental convictions, largely due to our visceral reaction to dirt and the fear of social judgment.

The research, led by Erik Klint, a doctoral student at the Division of Environmental Systems Analysis, highlights how deeply ingrained feelings of disgust significantly shape our laundry habits, with interesting implications for environmental sustainability.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study shows that despite technological advancements making laundry easier and more accessible, the frequency of our washing practices has escalated, bringing with it increased environmental burdens. Notably, laundering synthetic fibres releases a significant amount of microplastics—contributing to 16–35% of global emissions. The use of detergents leads to eutrophication, and the energy and water consumed during washing pose further environmental challenges.

Klint’s research focuses on the psychological underpinnings of these habits, particularly how disgust— an emotion rooted in evolutionary biology to protect us from disease—overpowers our environmental awareness. This emotional response is so potent that it can override even a strong environmental identity.

The study meticulously examines this conflict between environmental goals and the aversion to being perceived as unclean or socially unacceptable. Disgust not only concerns hygiene but is closely linked to social implications, such as shame and stigma. This powerful emotion pushes individuals to prioritize personal cleanliness over environmental considerations, leading to excessive laundry behaviours.

Reflecting on the broader impact of these findings, Klint critiques current environmental campaigns aimed at reducing laundry frequency. He suggests that these initiatives often fail because they do not consider the psychological barriers that drive behaviour.

To counteract the ‘ick’ factor, the study proposes strategies that focus on reducing the generation of laundry. This includes wearing clothes multiple times before washing, using spot cleaning techniques, and airing out garments instead of defaulting to machine washing. Such practices not only alleviate the environmental impact but also challenge the norms around cleanliness that are culturally and psychologically embedded.

Professor Gregory Peters, co-author of the study, emphasizes the potential application of these insights beyond laundry, suggesting that understanding the interplay between disgust and environmental behaviour could revolutionize sustainability training in various fields, including laboratory practices.

This unique intersection of behavioural science and environmental impact invites us to reconsider how we manage our daily routines, urging a more nuanced approach to sustainability that aligns with our instinctual behaviours. Could understanding and mitigating our disgust response be the key to more sustainable habits? This study certainly paves the way for exploring such questions, potentially leading to significant environmental advancements.

You can read the full study “Pro-environmental behaviour is undermined by disgust sensitivity: The case of excessive laundering” In PLOS ONE.

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