May 2, 2016 12:15 pm
Updated: May 2, 2016 1:23 pm

Hate the word ‘moist?’ This new study explains why

WATCH: Scientists studying why people have an aversion to the word "moist" say they've come up with reasons why.

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Do you cringe whenever you hear the word “moist?” There’s a reason — scientists trying to understand why some people are “categorically averse” to the word say it could be as simple as the way the word sounds.

Doctors out of Oberlin College in Ohio conducted five experiments to measure disdain for a handful of words, including profanity, racial slurs and other terms that are politically incorrect or even violent.

Some of the words included f***, murderer and vomit for example.

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The researchers wanted to figure out if an aversion to “moist” was real, who’s averse to it and why.

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“There is something interesting going on with this word. Several people have documented the weirdness of ‘moist,’ speculated on why it is aversive or used the phenomenon for comedic affect,” lead researcher, Dr. Paul Thibodeau wrote in the Psych Report.

He spent about four years working with almost 2,500 volunteers to understand what could be at play here.

So who hates the word moist?

Turns out, about 18 per cent of his study participants fell under the “categorically averse” grouping when it came to hearing the word. It was women, younger Americans, and those who had more education who found the word most unpleasant.

If they measured higher on a disgust scale when it came to bodily functions, the tendency to dislike “moist” was greater, too.

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It didn’t matter what their political stance, religion or sexuality was when it came to contempt for the word.

In other experiments, the scientists stacked “moist” next to other words to see where it stood on a scale. Turns out, the disdain is “benign” compared to other words in the English vocabulary, but if participants didn’t like the word, their reaction was visceral.

When playing word association games with the group, almost 30 per cent of moist-averse people said “yuck,” “eww,” or”gross” when they were asked to think of the first word that came to mind when they heard “moist.”

If they were indifferent to the word, they’d think of words like “wet” or “damp.”

So why do people hate the word “moist”?

The researchers have three guesses why people cringe at hearing the word:

  • Its sound. Scientists say some sounds are “inherently unpleasant” such as fingernails scratching down a chalkboard, while others have a “facial feedback hypothesis.” Moist could fall into the latter — saying the word could engage the same facial muscles we use when we see, smell or hear something disgusting.
  • Its connotation: Chocolate cake is moist and delicious, but less-pleasant things like vomit, phlegm or some aspects of sex could also be described as moist, Thibodeau noted. He guesses that some people could associate “moist” with the bad, or even worse, both. “Maybe when someone encounters the word they are hit with images of cake and sweaty armpits – not an ideal combination,” he wrote.
  • Its social transmission. Disdain for the word is having its moment and spreading like wildfire, the researchers suggest. Hatred for the word has been well-documented lately and is even getting attention on social media. “As the word gains attention, more and more people seem to find the word aversive. Alternatively, moist-aversion may just be a fad,” Thibodeau said.

There’s an evolutionary reason why we have a knee-jerk reaction to some words. “Emotional language” grabs our attention and sends red flags to the brain.

“Disgust is adaptive. If we didn’t have an instinct to run away from vomit and diarrhea, disease could spread more easily. But is this instinct biological or do we learn it? Does our culture shape what we find disgusting? This is a complex and nuanced question,” Thibodeau concluded.

Read the full findings.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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