When is gross gratifying?
“Oh, this is so disgusting!”
“You should smell it!”
My kids are just old enough to have learned the Power of Gross on adults, and so I’ve been actively training myself to refuse such invitations to look at or smell whatever gross thing they’ve discovered. Doing so requires a surprising amount of self-control though, as most of us kind of do want to see just how gross some old piece of fruit smells. We’re curious about revolting things. There’s even a sort of enjoyment to it, as long as you feel like you’re still in control of the situation.
Smelling stinky things for… fun, I guess? is part of a larger behavior pattern called “benign masochism.” Purposely taking a whiff of rotten egg can be exciting, as long as you know you’re safe from any harm normally associated with stinky smells. We can enjoy a scary story while understanding that we’re not actually in danger. A roller coaster can feel thrillingly out of control, but it’s fun only if you know it’s safe. These interests don’t come from repressed longing for harm, but are more closely tied to why young animals play— it’s a way to experiment and learn without the risks of the real thing.
Trying and testing without the trouble
Wresting behaviors in young animals are often ways that they can learn and practice hunting and socialization concepts. In humans, children will often wrestle or role play as various adult occupations, from “the mommy” to “super dinosaur wrangler.” When these games are played with other children, they get to explore these ideas and practice negotiating relationships with their playmates, all from the safety of their own home. Taking a kid and plunking them into one of these scenarios with real stakes involved would instead be stressful and quite likely frightening.
Benign masochism shows how context matters in our perception of experiences. Safe threats can be fun, rather than horrifying. Taken further, small doses of negative things, like a drop of musk in cologne, can be considered pleasant. Increasing the quantity of that musk too much though, and people will find it smells terrible.
Foul beyond any hope of fun
There are exceptions to this of course, as some substances or experiences are so awful they could probably never be minimized enough to be enjoyable. One substance beyond the reach of benign masochism is thioacetone ((CH3)2CS). Thioacetone was reported to be so disgusting that people in adjacent buildings were nauseated after a bottle of the stuff had been briefly uncorked. That said, the child in you is probably still curious to sniff, just to know… how bad could that smell be?
Source: Why Would People Stand in Line for Hours to Smell a Stinky Flower? by Erika Englehaupt, Gory Details