Why 'Moist' Makes us Cringe

August 21, 2015

Kasey Cheydleur

Man seated in front of chalkboard showing the word 'moist'
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Do you shudder if you hear someone describe something as “moist?” As many as 20 percent of the population does, according to recent research conducted by Assistant Professor of Psychology Paul Thibodeau. The name for this phenomenon is word aversion—deep disgust in reaction to words like “moist,” “crevice,” “slacks,” or “luggage.” Word-averse participants in his study equated hearing the word moist “to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard.”

Thibodeau was initially attracted to the topic because of the attention the word “moist” has received in popular culture—on Facebook, in television shows like How I Met Your Mother, The New Yorker, and People magazine for example—and the informal discussions about the phenomenon among psychologists and linguists. When several of his students expressed interest in the project as well, Thibodeau began to research moist and word aversion.

While there are many competing theories about what makes people want to cover their ears when they hear moist, according to Thibodeau’s study the actual sound of the word doesn’t seem to be one of them. Similar-sounding words like “foist,” “hoist,” and “rejoiced” failed to produce the same repulsed reaction moist did. His findings also challenge the facial-disgust theory—which posits that saying moist engages facial muscles that mirror disgust and therefore cause a disgusted reaction—because these similar-sounding words use the same facial expressions with little to no effect.

If it is not the sound of the word, what is it about this seemingly innocuous adjective that causes such disgust? It appears that the revulsion some harbor toward the word may lie in its connotations, and that context is key. According to Thibodeau’s study, people found moist particularly aversive when it followed unrelated positive words like paradise, or when associated with sexual words. However, when moist was used to describe something like cake, it received fewer averse reactions. Moist-averse participants also found words like “sticky” and “damp” very unpleasant, furthering this idea that it is the meaning behind the words people find repulsive rather that the words themselves.

It also seems that who you are may help determine your reaction to the word moist. Thibodeau found that certain groups of people were more likely to categorize themselves word-averse. Younger and more anxious participants reported higher word aversiveness as well as those with a particular disgust towards bodily functions. On the other hand, those who were particularly talkative were less likely to be word-averse.

Thibodeau’s research has received substantial press since its release, including articles on MTV.com and Mental Floss. When describing how it feels to have research go viral, he says, “It is kind of weird and fun at the same time. Research projects take a long time to develop and it generally seems like no one cares very much about them most of the time. And then all of a sudden, a lot of people are interested in the work. I really enjoy talking to people about my work so that part is great.”

Thibodeau recently completed experiments to test whether preconceived ideas about moist’s aversiveness could cause word aversion. A write-up of the results is currently under review and he hopes to publish them soon.

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