Scientists Discover Aversion to the Word 'Moist'

August 24th 2016

Do you hate the word "moist?" You're not alone.

Between 10 and 20 percent of the population finds the word "moist" equal to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.

This reaction is an example of word aversion. What causes it? A recent study by Paul Thibodeau, a psychologist and assistant professor at Oberlin College, asked why people react negatively when hearing certain words, using "moist" as a case study. His results may surprise you.

The researcher proposed four possible reasons why people hate the word "moist":

  1. People find the phonology of certain words — the way they sound — inherently unpleasant.
  2. Speaking words like "moist" engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust.
  3. People find the words unpleasant because of their association with sex or bodily functions.
  4. It's just a fad. The study would conclude this if there was a lack of evidence to support the first three hypotheses.

Thibodeau surveyed 400 participants over the course of five experiments, asking them to judge a list of 29 words on six criteria, Scientific American reported:

  1. How often they used the word.
  2. How often they encountered the word.
  3. Aversion to the word.
  4. Its positivity/negativity.
  5. How exciting or arousing it was.
  6. How easily it evoked an image in the mind.

The set of 29 words included ones that were either phonologically similar to "moist" (e.g. hoist and joist) or semantically similar (e.g. words about sex and bodily function).

Thibodeau's hypothesis was that if people were "moist-aversive" because the word sounded unpleasant (phonology), they would be averse to words that sounded the same, i.e., were related phonologically. If, on the other hand, they found the word unpleasant because of its unpleasant connotation (semantics), then they'd also find semantically related words objectionable.

And the results?

The respondents who found the word "moist" unpleasant didn't mind phonologically similar words, such as "foist" or "hoist." But they were averse to words that were the most semantically related to "moist," such as "wet" and "damp," as well as words that were related to bodily function, such as "phlegm" and "puke," according to the report.

So it all comes down to being disgusted with bodily function.

[h/t Scientific American]

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