Disgust is an under-rated tool for behavioural conditioning. For evidence of this, consider the rhetoric swirling around the formation, disintegration and impact of habits. A cursory look into it will tell you that habits must be replaced. Like stealing a precious jewel from a pressure pad in a fortified room, the weight cannot be removed unless it is exactly replicated. For example, many who have destructive habits like smoking or binge drinking are told to replace this tendency by subbing in a new behaviour like weight training or sports. The manic energy that sustained a previously destructive habit is thus redirected down a more profitable avenue.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the effects of excessive sugar in a human diet. For starters, high amounts of sugar is correlated with obesity, and it is linked to frequent and extreme mood swings. Sugar consumption also destroys teeth. I could go on, but I see no need to; we are all aware that excessive sugar consumption can have severe negative effects. Yet, what do we do about it? If you’re like me, then you just go on smashing those packets of biscuits, scoffing that cheesecake, munching that chocolate.
At first, then, it seems the strategy of disgust—explicitly highlighting the negative consequences of a habit—doesn’t work. But I would argue that it is only a failure of intensity. What we need to do is not merely remind ourselves that sugar destroys teeth. What we need to do is imagine ourselves in five years with yellowed teeth, multiple fillings, and frequent bouts of extremely painful toothache. To overcome habits which lead to obesity we do not need to imagine families or societies composed of overweight individuals. No, we need to imagine doing everything with a forty kilogram backpack on. We need to imagine not being able to exercise our joints through a full range of motion. We need to imagine the respiratory difficulty we experience after an hour of strenuous exercise occurring when we walk across a room, down a street or climb the stairs.
Put simply, habits don’t have to be replaced because they can be destroyed by disgust. But only if the disgust we feel is visceral, real and intense, instead of far off and abstract.