Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds
August 16, 2011
About 14 years ago, … a number of California’s local water agencies were proposing a different approach to the state’s perennial water problems. They wanted to build plants that would clean local wastewater — aka sewage water — and after that cleaning, make it available as drinking water.
But, says Haddad, these proposals were consistently shot down by an unwilling public.
“The public wasn’t really examinin g the science involved,” Haddad says. “They were just saying no.” This infuriated the water engineers, who thought the public’s response was fundamentally irrational
“A scientific answer is not going to satisfy someone who is feeling revulsion,” says Haddad. “You have to approach it in a different way.”
Carol Nemeroff is one of the psychologists Haddad recruited to help him with his research.
She works at the University of Southern Maine and studies psychological contagion.
The term refers to the habit we all have of thinking — consciously or not — that once something has had contact with another thing, their parts are in some way joined.
“It’s a very broad feature of human thinking,” Nemeroff explains. “Everywhere we look, you can see contagion thinking.”
Contagion thinking isn’t always negative. Often, we think it is some essence of goodness that has somehow been transmitted to an object — think of a holy relic or a piece of family jewelry.
Nemeroff offers one example: “If I have my grandmother’s ring versus an exact replica of my grandmother’s ring, my grandmother’s ring is actually better because she was in contact with it — she wore it. So we act like objects — their history is part of the object.”
And according to Nemeroff, there are very good reasons why people think like this. As a basic rule of thumb for making decisions, when we’re uncertain about realities in the world, contagion thinking has probably served us well. “If it’s icky, don’t touch it,” says Nemeroff.
“It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone,” Nemeroff says.
Around 60 percent of people are unwilling to drink water that has had direct contact with sewage, according to their research.
But as Nemeroff points out, there is a certain irony to this position, at least when viewed from the perspective of a water engineer. You see, we are all already basically drinking water that has at one point been sewage.
After all, “we are all downstream from someone else,” as Nemeroff says. “And even the nice fresh pure spring water? Birds and fish poop in it. So there is no water that has not been pooped in somewhere.”