“Insects in the home produced more disgust in the brain than insects in the wild, especially cockroaches,” said Dr. Eric Schumacher, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Advanced Brain Imaging. “Our research suggests that we may be conditioned against pests in the home because they may be associated with contamination or illness. It’s not clear why cockroaches in particular elicit extreme disgust, although there can be many social and cultural factors that come into play that drive these emotions — familiarity, cultural norms, and so on.”
“Disgust likely evolved to keep us away from sources of pathogens,” said Tom Armstrong, assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College in Washington State. “Creepy crawly insects could be repellent because they tend to live in dark, damp places where bacteria thrive. Some may be human parasites, whereas others could transmit disease. While worms or maggots in food may not be harmful in themselves, they could indicate that food has been compromised by pathogens.”
John Mayer, a clinical psychologist and horror film screenwriter, suggests another reason so many of us feel disgust toward these creatures is that they seem to defy the natural order. “They seem to live forever,” said Mr. Mayer. “They are hard to destroy. Lightly flush a spider down a drain, and in minutes it is crawling back out of the drain. Squash some bugs, and they keep wiggling. Add on that they seem to multiply by the millions. Then, to all this, they look abnormal — weird heads, spindly legs, wings, strange color combinations. These are not living creatures that convey cuddly, cute affection — rather, danger. And, hell, some bite.”
Yoshinori Tomoyasu, who grew up in Japan and moved to the United States as a researcher studying insect evolution and development, said “many things are surprisingly similar between the U.S. and Japan, but with one exception — insects are not so ‘popular’ in the U.S. This was a big surprise for me, especially as an insect scientist. In Japan, insects are very close to us, both physically and mentally.”
Dr. Tomoyasu said that keeping insects as pets, especially rhinoceros and stag beetles, is very popular for kids in Japan. Rhino beetles, for example, are a symbol of strength, and kids who can catch big beetles are the “cool” kids there, he said.
“Insects are embedded into Japanese culture, which is evident from many insect-related phrases and proverbs we have in Japan. For example, when you have a hunch, you can say, ‘I had news delivered by a bug,’” Dr. Tomoyasu said. “When you are in a bad mood, you can say, ‘My bug is in a wrong place in my body.’”
In the past 10 years, he has observed more insect-related products being marketed to American children, such as bug nets and cages, as well as books and TV shows about bugs, which may help a new generation to face them with less fear and disgust.