- Disgust that is felt as physical revulsion serves to protect people from potential sources of disease.
- Disgust has evolved to encompass behavior and actions that people find morally repugnant.
- Sometimes just being in the vicinity of an object of disgust is enough to be perceived as contaminated.
This post was cowritten by Nathalie Boutros, Ph.D., and Tchiki Davis, M.A., Ph.D.
Disgust has been identified as one of the universal emotions shared by all people (Rozin & Fallon, 1987). It is characterized as feelings of revulsion, of wanting to get away from the offensive object. Your feelings of disgust stop you from eating spoiled food and ensure that you stay away from excrement and other potential sources of disease and infection.
But we don’t only feel disgusted in response to physical objects with the potential to make us sick. We often refer to behaviors and actions that we deeply dislike as disgusting. An online search of recent news headlines that feature the word "disgusting" revealed that racism, police brutality, political maneuvering, opposing media outlets, and stigma about mental health, among other things, were all labeled as disgusting. Do these various actions and ideas all elicit the same visceral feeling that you get when you smell vomit? Or is disgust used in such headlines as a metaphor?
The disgust felt in response to moral transgressions may have evolved from the more basic disgust felt in response to physically offensive objects. Paul Rozin, a pioneering researcher in the psychology of disgust, puts it this way: Disgust has evolved from protecting the body to protecting the soul and the social order.
Research has found, time and again, that feelings of disgust are often illogical. For example, when presented with two pieces of fudge that you know are edible, tasty, not harmful, and identical to one another in every way except that one is shaped to look like dog feces, you are unlikely ever to choose the feces-shaped fudge. Similarly, you’re unlikely to drink orange juice that has been in contact with a sterilized dead cockroach or to drink apple juice from a clean and unused bedpan. In all of these situations, the feelings of disgust induced by vermin, excrement, or urine contaminate the food items, even if you know that the items are perfectly safe and tasty (Haidt et al., 1994).
Similarly, exposure to disgusting imagery (e.g., “the worst toilet in Scotland” scene from the movie Trainspotting) reduces the perceived value of nearby items (Lerner et al., 2016). Feelings of disgust can contaminate nearby objects, even when those objects are in no way related to the disgust that you are feeling. Advertising rarely employs disgusting imagery. Other negative emotions, like fear and anger, may drive sales in some situations. However, if potential customers feel disgusted when they see your product, even if your product is the solution to a disgusting problem, they’ll probably value your product less.
The contaminating power of disgust is enduring. Would you eat a bowl of your favorite soup after it had been stirred with a “used but thoroughly cleaned” fly swatter? Most people would not. The fly swatter, having been contaminated by exposure to a disgusting squished insect, is forever disgusting.
At a primitive level, emotions drive you to behave in ways that will ensure your survival. For example, fear drives you to escape a dangerous situation. Disgust drives nausea, vomiting, and other behaviors that either prevent things from entering your mouth or remove things that have already entered your mouth. This suggests that disgust has origins in eating, food, and ingestion.
From these origins, disgust has evolved. You can also be disgusted by sexual practices, bad hygiene, and reminders of death or injury. Moreover, you can also feel disgusted by contact with undesirable others and by moral offenses (Tybur et al., 2012).
Our sense of disgust expanded from the physical to the moral as we became an increasingly social species (Curtis, 2011). Perhaps because pathogens and parasites transmit within and across groups of people, the emotion of disgust is strongly involved in prejudice, xenophobia, and stigmatization (Olatunji & Sawchuck, 2005).
Can Disgust Feel Pleasurable?
Interestingly, feelings of disgust can sometimes be experienced as pleasurable, in a phenomenon called benign masochism (Rozin et al., 2013). The popularity of dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, better known as Dr. Pimple Popper, attests to the appeal that disgusting experiences can have. The Dr. Pimple Popper YouTube channel features close-up videos of oozing blackheads and cyst removals and has over 7 million subscribers. The experience of watching a minor but very real medical procedure causes you to feel disgusted without having to face any real threat. Our ability to feel that we can withstand such menaces produces a gratifying sense of mastery.
As you can see, disgust is a powerful emotion. Disgust keeps you from eating spoiled food and from interacting with objects that may contain disease-causing pathogens. However, this beneficial protective system can become co-opted against people who are different from us.
Adapted from an article on disgust published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
Curtis, V. (2011). Why Disgust Matters. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B Biological Sciences, 366(1583), 3478-3490.
Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual Differences in Sensitivity to Disgust: A Scale Sampling Seven Domains of Disgust Elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16(5), 701-713.
Lerner, J. S., Small, D. A., & , L., G. (2016). Heart Strings and Purse Strings: Carryover Effects of Emotions on Economic Decisions. Psychological Science, 15(5), 337-341.
Olatunji, B. O., & Sawchuck, C. N. (2005). Disgust: Characteristic Features, Social Manifestations, and Clinical Implications. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(7), 932-962.
Rozin, P., & Fallon, A. E. (1987). A Perspective on Disgust. Psychological Review, 94(1), 23-41.
Rozin, P., Guillot, L., Fincher, K., Rozin, A., & Tsukayama, E. (2013). Glad to be Sad, and Other Examples of Benign Masochism. Judgment and Decision Making, 8(4), 439-447.
Tybur, J., Lieberman, D., Kurzban, R., & DeScioli, P. (2012). Disgust: Evolved Function and Structure. Psychological Review, 120(1).