Recycling Water - And Attitudes

Paul Rozin identifies a major roadblock to exploring new methods of attaining drinkable water.
April 30, 2012

As Earth’s population continues to grow and its climate steadily changes, making sure that people have fresh, drinkable water is becoming a major concern. Many parts of the world already face life-threatening water shortages, which threaten to spread to even the most developed nations as the 21st century progresses. Through water reclamation and reuse (WRR) projects, the crisis is being addressed by a dedicated legion of experts including engineers, environmental scientists, ecologists, geologists—and SAS psychologist, Paul Rozin.

“What does psychology have to do with solving the worldwide water crisis? Quite a lot. Disgust is at the core of what’s going on with recycled water,” Rozin notes. “It’s been a big roadblock. The people opposed to recycling are not opposed to anything in principle, they’re opposed to the fact that their water is going to be purified sewer water. And they can block advance for years or even longer.” Political opponents to WRR even have a catchy motto to express their distaste: “toilet to tap.”

“I don’t think disgust exists in infants, but that doesn't mean it's not genetically programmed, it just comes later. We're not really clear on where this comes from, but it certainly is there, and we are particularly concerned with the history of the food we eat, how it was made, where it was made.” – Paul Rozin

The irony, of course, is that ultimately all water, like air, has been continually recycled by nature for millions of years. “It’s the natural cycle,” Rozin observes. “All water was once sewer water—it gets treated, dumped into the ocean, where it evaporates and comes down as rain, goes into streams and back into the human water supply. It’s just that the immediacy of the transformation is more salient for recycled water.”

Rozin has spent his nearly fifty-year career at Penn studying attitudes toward food, contamination, the natural vs. the artificial, and the things that make us feel disgusted. That made him an obvious choice to investigate the psychology of water reclamation for a recent study by the WateReuse Foundation. While, as might be expected, the principal investigator on that study is a water engineer (Brent M. Haddad from the University of California), “he realized that this was largely a psychological problem and that he needed a psychologist, so he got in touch with me,” Rozin says.

Rozin and two colleagues, Carol Nemeroff and Paul Slovic, designed a detailed questionnaire to examine reactions to the idea of water reuse and attitudes about WRR. Such attitudes are undoubtedly partly instinctual, Rozin observes, “As a species we are very concerned with the things we contact and consume.” But cultural and other external influences also play a definite part. “I don’t think disgust exists in infants, but that doesn’t mean it’s not genetically programmed, it just comes later. We’re not really clear on where this comes from, but it certainly is there, and we are particularly concerned with the history of the food we eat, how it was made, where it was made. Usually we don’t think about it, we just eat it. But when somebody calls it to our attention, it becomes important.”

Rozin’s study surveyed only Americans, so the response of other cultures remains an open question. “We are generally speaking a culture that’s quite sensitive to contamination, because it’s so often in the news. So it probably resonates more here,” Rozin says. “We want to get data from other cultures. We’re interested in India, getting data from the Indian underclass which is probably more than half a billion people. We’re just beginning to worry about getting the world involved.” Rozin has already studied the increasing use of WRR measures in Singapore, an island forced to import water from not-always-friendly neighbors. “They’re dependent in a way they don’t want to be, so there’s a great motive [for WRR],” Rozin notes.

The good news, however, seems to be that most people overcome their initial reluctance toward recycled water; particularly once they’ve had the chance to try it and see others use it. “After a couple of weeks at most, they do’t even think about it anymore,” says Rozin. “So the issue is partly getting people over this hump, because once they’re over that, everything will be fine.” Rozin cites the initial opposition to fluoridated water when it was introduced decades ago. “And then people just didn’t even think about it after awhile.”

In the end, necessity trumps disgust. “We know that if people have to drink recycled water, they would because they want to survive," says Rozin. “[This problem] is going to solve itself, because as the necessity goes up, people are just going to respond to it. They have no choice. We might be able to accelerate it a little, and that’s what our research is starting to do.”