Disclaimer: This article examines words people find aversive. As a result, it contains strong and potentially offensive language.
People Magazine—psycholinguistics’ most trusted lexicon—defines “moist” as “the most cringeworthy word” in American English. When they asked some of the sexiest men alive to try and make the word sound sexy, it was pretty clear they could not. One viewer responded that the video was “pure sadism” and that the only way to recover would be to “go Oedipal and gouge your eyes out.”
In a recent series of studies published in PLOS ONE, several members of my lab and I sought to answer some initial questions about word aversion. Specifically:
1. How prevalent is an aversion to “moist” and who’s averse?
2. What does it mean to be averse to a word?
3. And, what makes a word aversive?
Five experiments, conducted over about four years, with almost 2,500 participants from the general population of American English speakers provide some answers.
How prevalent is an aversion to “moist” and who’s averse?
On average, about 18 percent of our participants identified as categorically averse to the word. Women, younger people, and those with more education, who tended to score higher on measures of disgust toward bodily function and neuroticism (a personality trait characterized by increased feelings of anxiety, worry, anger and guilt), were particularly likely to find the word unpleasant.
Controlling for these factors, we found no differences in a person’s likelihood of finding “moist” aversive based on their political ideology, religiosity, disgust toward sex, or any other personality variables.
What does it mean to be averse to a word?
Using prior work on taboo language as a guide, we first sought to establish what a dimension of word aversion looks like. What are some of the most aversive words in English and what are some of the least? (Fair warning: we used some pretty nasty words to get a true sense of what this dimension might look like.) Here’s what we found:
“Moist” falls pretty close to the midpoint of the scale—more benign than truly aversive for the general population. There are many words in English that people consider much more unpleasant.
Then we tried to gauge how much more aversive it was for people who hate it. We created a reference point by manipulating the context in which it was rated. In one study, some of the participants rated the aversiveness of “moist” after a few positive words, like “paradise,” while other participants rated the aversiveness of “moist” after a few negative words, like “retarded.” This should lead to a “contrast effect.” (To get a sense of what of we mean by contrast effect think about when you put your hand in room-temperature water immediately after it has been in ice-cold or scalding-hot water: it will feel warmer in the former case and colder in the latter. Contrast effects in psychology tend to be fairly large and reliable.) Predictably, we found that people thought the word was more icky after they had rated a few positive words and less icky after they had rated some negative words.
We were interested in how the difference elicited by the contrast manipulation would compare to the difference in ratings between people who identified as categorically moist-averse and people who identified as categorically non-averse. In one sense the finding was fairly mundane: people who identified as categorically averse to “moist” rated the word as much more aversive than people who did not identify as categorically averse to “moist.” But the size of the difference did surprise us: it was almost half the range of the scale, and almost four times bigger than the difference elicited by the contrast effect. This means that word aversion is pretty salient and significant for those who experience it.
Results from a free response task helped illustrate just how visceral word aversion can be. When participants were asked to list the first word that came to mind upon seeing “moist,” almost 30 percent of people who later identified as moist-averse said something like “yuck” or “eww” or “gross.” In contrast, people who didn’t identify as moist-averse typically generated words with related meanings like “wet” or “damp.” Moist-averse participants were also more likely to remember having encountered the word in a surprise recall task, suggesting that it carries more emotional weight and is more likely to grab their attention.
We also tried to get sense of the broader profile of aversive words by having people rate other linguistic dimensions of “moist.” The results suggested that word aversion is characterized by the infrequent use of the word as well as thinking the word has a more negative connotation. Averse participants also believed the word was less familiar to them, although, in reality it is probably similarly familiar to most speakers of American English. The word was no more arousing for moist-averse participants than for non-averse participants, though; nor did it seem to be more likely to call an image to mind for this group.
What makes a word aversive?
We considered three possible reasons for moist-aversion:
1. Sound. The sound of the word itself may be the cause of peoples’ aversion to “moist.” Some work in psychology has found that certain sounds are inherently unpleasant—like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. Other work has found evidence of a “facial feedback hypothesis:” “moist” may be aversive because saying the word engages the same facial muscles that contract when we see (or smell or hear) something disgusting. This may, in fact, cause people to feel disgusted by saying the word “moist:” patterns of facial muscle constriction not only signal our emotional states to other people, we also learn about ourselves from our unconscious physiological responses to stimuli in the world.
2. Connotation. An alternative possibility is that the word is associated in people’s minds with other words or things things that they already find disgusting, like vomit, phlegm, or aspects of sex. Of course, “moist” also has some positive connotations—who doesn’t love a moist piece of chocolate cake? So a related possibility might be that the word is aversive because it simultaneously calls to mind positive and negative associations. Maybe when someone encounters the word they are hit with images of cake and sweaty armpits—not an ideal combination.
3. Social transmission. A final possibility is that the word may have become aversive because of the attention it has received in popular and social media. Word aversion may result from a conscious process of thinking about how certain words are gross. This would suggest that there is a “good” psychological reason for the aversion—that it is grounded in the sound or connotation of the word—but that it is triggered by deliberation and may spread like a virus. Anecdotal evidence for this possibility comes from the growing number of people who seem to find the word unpalatable: as the word gains attention, more and more people seem to find the word aversive. Alternatively, moist-aversion may just be a fad. If so, the “good” psychological reason for the phenomenon might simply be to identify oneself as part of a group—a group of people who find “moist” cringeworthy.
The experiments provided the most support for a combination of the second and third possibilities: that aversion to “moist” may spread socially but it is also grounded in feelings of disgust toward bodily functions.
Here’s the evidence for why moist-aversion seems to be tied to disgust toward bodily function. First, recall that people who scored higher on a measure of disgust toward bodily function were more likely to find “moist” aversive. Second, people who identified as categorically averse to “moist” also found words like “phlegm” and “vomit” more aversive than people who didn’t have a strong unpleasant reaction to “moist.” In contrast, moist-averse participants were not more sensitive to words that had similar phonological properties to “moist” like “foist,” “hoist,” or “rejoiced” or to words related to sex like “vagina” and “penis” (or a variety of other words related to sex that you can find in the paper).
Third, when we used a common statistical technique (latent semantic analysis) to figure out how similar in meaning the words in our set were to “moist,” the result was a good predictor of peoples’ perceptions of word-averseness. That is, moist-averse participants showed a stronger aversion to words that were related in meaning to “moist,” like “wet” and “damp.” There was no difference in ratings of aversiveness of words like “hoist” and “love” that are less similar in meaning to “moist.”
Interestingly, participants’ speculation on the cause of moist-aversion was inconsistent with the behavioral data. Often, moist-averse participants pointed to the sound of the word as the source of their aversion. “The ‘oy’ sound juxtaposed to ‘ss’ and ‘tt.’ It’s not a word that sounds pleasant. Neither does hoist or foist,” wrote one participant. Non-averse participants pointed to the word’s association with sex: “It reminds people of sex and vaginas.” This kind of data from introspection can be misleading. There is a long history in psychology showing that people regularly don’t know why they think and behave the way that they do. In this case, both groups were wrong: people who identified as averse to “moist” may think the sound of the word itself is the cause of their aversion because their reaction is fast and visceral—so it must have something to do with the sound of the word. Similarly, although “moist” may have associations to sex, these associations don’t seem to be the primary cause of moist-aversion.
The strongest evidence that moist-aversion is transmitted socially and may be triggered by a process of conscious deliberation came from one of our studies that was designed to induce an aversion to the word. One group of people watched the video that was made by People Magazine, while another watched a “control” video that showed actors using the word “moist” to describe the taste of cake. After watching the cringe-inducing video, people considered “moist” not only more aversive, but said that it was a word they used relatively infrequently and that the word had a more negative connotation. In other words, watching the video that made “moist” seem aversive shifted the entire profile of the word to be more consistent with the perceptions of people who were already averse to the word.
What do we learn from these studies?
There are a few important lessons to be learned from these studies. Two are fairly obvious: we now have a better sense of what makes the word “moist” aversive and another demonstration that we’re not particularly good at reflecting accurately on why we think what we think.
More relevant to broader theories in psychology, the work has implications for theories of language processing and the psychology of disgust. Emotional language is processed differently than “neutral” language: it grabs our attention, engages different parts of the brain, and is more likely to be remembered. This can be good or bad: cake mixes that advertise themselves as “moist” may make some people more likely to buy them because they catch our eye, but they may make us less likely to buy them because of the word’s association with disgusting bodily function (an open question).
Disgust is adaptive. If we didn’t have an instinct to run away from vomit and diarrhea, disease would 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. Significant work is needed to answer it definitively. But the present studies suggest that, when it comes to the disgust that is elicited by words like “moist,” there is an important cultural component—the symbols we use to communicate with one another can become contaminated and elicit disgust by virtue of their association with bodily functions.
Paul Thibodeau is an Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Oberlin College. His research focuses on how people communicate with metaphors and analogies. His lab uses computational models and behavioral experiments to study the mechanisms that underline figurative language processing and the subtle but powerful ways that metaphors and analogies constrain the way we think.
Further Reading and Resources
- Thibodeau, P. H. (2016). A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds. PLOS ONE, 11(4): e0153686.
- Words Came In, Marked for Death…(2012). The New Yorker.
- Liberman, Mark. (2012). Literary moist aversion. Language Log.
- Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D. E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M. H., & Monaghan, P. (2015). Arbitrariness, Iconicity, and Systematicity in Language. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 603-615.
- Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological review, 108(4), 814.
- Rozin, P., & Haidt, J. (2013). The domains of disgust and their origins: contrasting biological and cultural evolutionary accounts. Trends in Cognitive Cciences, 17(8), 367-368.
- Zajonc, R.B. (1985). Emotion and facial efference: A theory reclaimed. Science, 228(4695), 15-21.
Disclosure: Paul Thibodeau is a member of The Psych Report’s Advisory Board.