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To elicit disgust in her experimental subjects, psychologist taps "Fear Factor"

– Writhing worms and grasshopper shakes, the meat and potatoes of NBC-TV's "Fear Factor," are so universally repellent that psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, are using video clips from the reality series to elicit disgust in their experimental subjects.

UC Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Michelle Shiota asked NBC's permission to use a dozen clips in an experiment to determine whether older people are better able to control their emotional reactions than younger people.

 Maggot-eating contestant
Contestant Kelly Preston confronts a platter of meal worms on NBC's "Fear Factor." (Photo courtesy NBC-TV)
 

"Many of the tasks given to participants in 'Fear Factor' are the kind of activities we expect to elicit really strong disgust in everyone, so I'm confident the clips will be successful," Shiota said.

Shiota noted that underlying her study is the assumption that emotions evolved to help humans survive and reproduce. Disgust at putting something in your mouth that doesn't belong there, whether rotting meat or feces or live worms, presumably provided a survival advantage to early human ancestors, protecting them from things that would put them at risk of serious illness, she said.

"From a theoretical perspective, the 'Fear Factor' clips are exactly what we're looking for," Shiota said. "Automatic responses ranging from nausea to the desire to look away have an important function."

"The only thing harder than acceptance to a prestigious school like Cal-Berkeley is beating out the other 40,000 applications that 'Fear Factor' receives annually," said Matt Kunitz, executive producer of "Fear Factor." "We're honored to donate footage of some of our grossest stunts - from eating live spiders to drinking a maggot shake - in the name of science."

The 250 subjects Shiota plans to employ in her psychology experiment will be shown film clips to evoke physiological responses such as changes in heart rate and sweating and behavioral responses such as nose wrinkling and looking away. The goal is to determine whether subjects can regulate the strong feelings of revulsion that these clips produce, and to find out what strategies people of various ages use to do so.

"There's a general assumption that aging is marked by losses in many physical and cognitive functions " Shiota said. "But in some areas, people may actually improve with age, taking advantage of years of experience and achieving greater wisdom and a more balanced life. We're looking at one area that might show improvement with age - emotional regulation - to see if older people are more effective at controlling the way they feel."

The "Fear Factor" clips will be shown along with other movie clips intended to elicit feelings of sadness or grief, or merely neutral feelings as a control.

The experiments are part of a larger study funded by the National Institute on Aging and run by Robert W. Levenson, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. This research program is examining a number of different aspects of emotional functioning to determine how these change as people age. As part of this research, for the past 15 years Levenson has also been conducting a study of long-term marriages to determine how the emotional qualities of marital interactions change over time.