Graphic images have long been tools of campaigns against smoking and STDs. Researchers want to know if they can work for infectious diseases like Covid.
EVERY NOW AND then, I remember the Slideshow. This presentation about sexually transmitted infections was infamous among my fellow South Florida seventh graders. If you got your middle school sex ed elsewhere, it might be hard to imagine just how graphic its slides were. But being gross was the point: If kids saw the symptoms of untreated gonorrhea, the reasoning went, then disgust would sway them from reckless decisions.
Down in the basic wiring of our brains, disgust motivates avoidance. You’re less likely to go on a second date with a first date who smells bad. If a pigeon picks at your sandwich, you might opt to go hungry. Public health data backs this up: When cigarette packaging shows graphic pictures of smokers’ diseased organs, attempts to quit smoking double. “A vivid image is much more powerful than just abstract numbers,” says Woo-kyoung Ahn, a professor of psychology at Yale University. “Disgust is a powerful emotion rooted as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us expel and avoid harmful substances.”