The Cooties Heuristic


When I first moved to California, I had the choice of renting a 700 square foot apartment for $650 per month or an 850 square foot apartment for $550 per month. Both were in the same building. The larger and less expensive one even had a better view.

I was puzzled by the bargain until the landlord explained to me there had been an “unfortunate incident” in the larger apartment. As a result, no one was willing to rent it. It was as if the apartment was contaminated.

This phenomena is what Wray Herbert calls the cooties heuristic, named after the imaginary disease that U.S. school kids think they will get by kissing members of the opposite sex. When it comes to the purity of our food, Herbert claims we think in extremes. Virtually anything added to natural food causes the food to have cooties, reducing its appeal. This explains why “nothing artificial” and “no additives” are such powerful marketing devices.

Once is something is contaminated, it’s tough for it to be considered pure again. Despite severe drought shortages in California, the general public has resisted using waste water which has been purified into drinking water. Instead, we would rather pay 20 times more for bottled water which has more impurities than the treated water. As psychologist Carol Nemeroff explained:

It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone.

This cooties heuristic extends beyond food and drink. A recent study on emotional residue shows people report feeling sad upon entering a room that a depressed person has been sitting in all day – even if the person has already left the room. Because the new entrant has no idea the depressed person used to be in the room, it’s as if the sadness was passed as an airborne contagion. Similar effects have been shown with evil sweaters and haunted offices.

Intellectually all of this seems easy to dismiss. Eat the food, wear the sweater, and leave the room happy. But genetic wiring is stronger than logic.

My own experience is proof: I rented the smaller apartment, even though it was more expensive.

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2 Responses to The Cooties Heuristic

  1. Maxim Zakhartchenko May 9, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    Come to think of this, actually, when entering funeral home or area of high stress I get some worry and stress feeling.

  2. Arun Krishnaswamy May 13, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    Your decision was a wise one, Jonathan.
    Talking of drinking water, Singapore had challenges here – NEWater is an interesting story. Check out at
    They had to overcome cultural pushbacks by offering it to convention and conference delegates free through the event organisers.
    Years ago, I noticed a practice whereby, in public buses, whenever a person got up to get down, the empty seat would not get occupied for a while…I used to take advantage of this and sit there till I realised the local people used to wait several minutes presumably to ‘clear’ the seat, I imagine, of any remaning ‘aura’, before they sat down.

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