Is the yuck factor settling the diaper debate?

Nappies pageAs parents make their way through pack after pack of disposable nappies, is the yuck factor part of the reason they shun the reusable alternative of cloth nappies?

By the time they are potty trained, a typical baby will get through around 4,000 disposable nappies and costing parents approximately £400 a year, according to figures from the Environment Agency and consumer group Which?.

By switching to the reusable alternatives, cloth nappy advocacy group Go Real estimates families can save anywhere between £150 and £1,000 during their child’s early years. There are also environmental benefits to consider with experts suggesting disposable nappies taking up to 500 years to decompose.

Despite this, convenience means that many parents go for the disposable option as they save time, effort and, more importantly, avoid the need to get hands on with piles of dirty nappies in the laundry basket.

In an online chat with the Nappy Science Gang, a citizen science project about cloth nappies, Dr Philip Powell, a Research Associate from the Department of Economics and expert on the human response of disgust, explains how the “yuck factor” plays a role in why some parents opting for the throwaway choice and how they could overcome it.

Dr Powell said: “Different people tend to be more or less prone to feeling the sense of disgust. There are individual differences in the way we negatively appraise our disgust responses, or basically how bothered we are about feeling disgusted.

“Although individuals sense of disgust are at different levels, they are not fundamentally fixed and can be altered with training and exposure to the object of disgust.

“So, a parent who is initially put off by changing nappies and handling poo can, with time, get used to it as the “yuck response” decreases. Sewer workers are another good example of habituation, or medical students before and after a dissection course.”

However, helping parents overcome their disgust at the idea of handling used cloth nappies will require more than just parents forcing themselves to get to grips with soiled nappies. Instead the nappy industry and advocacy groups need to market a sustainable alternative as less disgusting than they may think, Dr Powell believes.

He added: “I think there is potential for learning about and overcoming disgust as an ‘unreasoned’ barrier to sustainable behaviours.

“We can give people the tools to try and regulate and re-appraise their own disgust responses, or we can change the way we market and promote things that make them less disgusting to people, for example people are more likely to drink “eco-water” than “recycled waste-water. I think psychological science has a task of trying to find out what are the best ways to regulate disgust in sustainable scenarios such as this.

“On this point, disgust is being used as a tool in campaigns to encourage hand-washing in certain countries where it is not common, which is obviously a good thing.”