Mental Floss

Cooties explained

Ransom Riggs

As a part of science's never-ending quest to apply fancy-sounding names to everyday phenomena, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania have coined the word "touch transference." It's what happens -- in our minds, at least -- when a package of toilet paper touches your fillet mignon at the grocery store, and for the briefest moment, you think: "eww." We're talking about cooties here: when something gross touches something otherwise benign, and "infects" it. Turns out, according to a new article in Time, that touch transference holds powerful sway over a lot of people; it certainly drives business in the cleaning products industry, and guides supermarket owners' decisions on how to organize goods on their shelves. "In a series of studies, the researchers found not only that some products--trash bags, diapers, kitty litter, tampons--evoke a subconscious feeling of disgust even before they're used for their ultimate messy purposes, but they can also transfer their general ickiness to anything they come in contact with. 'We were pretty surprised at how strong the effect was,' says Fitzsimons. 'This is probably the most robust result in my career.'"

Also interesting was the notion that cooties may have been a very useful thing hundreds of years ago, before humans had any knowledge of germs and the damage they could do. Hence, we've always been revolted by things like rotting food. But everybody's got their own personal set of gross-outs -- anybody care to share?