Contamination Appraisals, Pollution Beliefs, and the Role of Cultural Inheritance in Shaping Disease Avoidance Behavior

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Despite the upsurge of research on disgust, the implications of this research for the investigation of cultural pollution beliefs has yet to be adequately explored. In particular, the sensitivity of both disgust and pollution to a common set of elicitors (e.g., bodily emissions, disease, and death) suggests a common psychological basis, though several obstacles have prevented an integrative account, including methodological differences between the relevant disciplines. Employing a conciliatory framework that embraces both naturalistic (evolutionary) and humanistic levels of explanation, this article examines the dynamic reciprocal process by which contamination/contagion appraisals in individuals serve to shape-and are in turn shaped by-culture-specific pollution beliefs. This complex interrelationship is illustrated by examining ancient Near Eastern and modern ethnographic documentation of pollution beliefs, highlighting the underappreciated function of these pollution beliefs as folk theories for the spread of infectious disease. By evaluating how pollution beliefs (as also modern germ theory) shape contamination appraisals in individuals, it will be argued that cultural inheritance has played a much larger role in guiding disease avoidance behavior than has been previously recognized.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1561-1585
Number of pages25
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2015 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.


  • Consilience
  • Contagion
  • Contamination
  • Disgust
  • Embodiment
  • Impurity
  • Pollution
  • Purity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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