Disgust Photo courtesy of The AtlanticOpens in new window

The word disgust means “bad taste,” but people report that feelings of disgust extend far beyond bad-tasting foods or bacteria-filled body products such as feces and vomit.

In studies in which people are asked to remember times when they were disgusted, they described a wide varitety of disgust elicitors, including food, body products, animals, and gore, but also moral violations such as betrayal and racism (e.g.,. Haidt, Rozin, McCauley, & Imada, 1997).

Viewing disgust broadly and including moral violations as examples of disgust occurs in many cultures. For instance, the word for “disgust” encompasses moral violations in many languages, including English, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, and Bengali (Haidt et al., 1997).

Disgust experts Paul Rozen, Jonathan Haidt, and Clark McCauley (2008) argue that disgust began as a rejection response that shields the body from the dangers presented by bad (e.g., poisonous, rotten, or contaminated) food and that as human societies developed, disgust also became a rejection response that guards the human soul from a variety of dangers.

As Haidt and colleagues (1997) discuss, for North Americans, stimuli or situations that evoke disgust are food, body products, animals, sexual behaviors, contact with death or corpses, violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., deformity and gory injury), poor hygiene, interpersonal contamination (contact with people who are viewed as offensive), and particular moral offenses. Many of the stimuli described can harm the body, and others have the potential to harm the soul.

Disgust has characteristic qualities that identify it as an emotionOpens in new window, including behavioral response, an expressive component, physiological aspects including brain activity, and an experiential component.

Behaviorally, disgust involves distancing oneself from the disgusting object, situation, or event. Disgust experts often call this rejection.

  • In the case of a food that tastes bad or that one has just learned was recently covered by cockroaches, the rejection takes the form of spitting out the food.
  • In the case of learning that one’s romantic partner was likely involved in child abuse, rejection may take the form of emotional distancing from the person and the breaking off of physical contact.

The facial expression associated with disgust is fairly specific. Most experts agree that disgust includes a mouth gape, retraction of the upper lip, and a wrinkling of the nose (e.g., Darwin, 1872/1998; Ekman & Friesen, 1975). Physiologically, with disgust, the parasympathetic nervous systemOpens in new window is active, including lowering of heart rate (Levension, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990).

Areas of the brain that appear to be involved in disgust are the anterior insula, the basal ganglia, and parts of the prefrontal cortex. Additionally, people often report nausea with disgust. The experiential or feeling aspect of disgust is frequently described as repulsion.

Over eons of human history, the output aspect of disgust—behavioral withdrawal, facial expression, physiological response—has remained largely unchanged, but the input side has expanded (Rozin et al., 2008).

Initially, people were disgusted by bad-tasting food, by body products such as feces, and by many things associated with animals; the function of the disgust reaction in this case was to protect the body from disease and infection.

Rozin et al. (2008) argue that we now have the same disgust reaction to some situations that are unlikely to cause bodily harm. Situations such as feeling disgust toward a serial murderer, or even in reaction to his possessions, and feelings disgusted by racism or betrayal fit in this category. Rozin and colleagues argue that reacting with disgust is a way to protect either the soul (aspects of the self such as identity and self-concept), or the social order (the collective value system of a culture), or both.

Rozin et al. (2008) review research on a variety of topics that have been studied or discussed largely beginning in the 1990s, including the development of disgust in children, cultural differences in disgust, the relationship between disgust and psychopathology (e.g., disgust and obsessive-compulsive disorder), the relationship between disgust and pleasure, and other topics.

See also:
  1. Barnes, D.S. (2006). The great stink of Paris and the marriage of filth and germs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Miller, W.I. (1997). The anatomy of disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C.R. (2008). Disgust. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 757 – 776). New York: Guilford.
  4. Haidt, J., Rozin, P., McCauley, C.R., & Imada, D. (1997). Body, psyche, and culture: The relationship between disgust and morality. Psychology and Developing Societies, 9, 107 – 131.
  5. Husted, D.S., Shapira, N.A., &Goodman, W.K. (2006). The neurocircuitry of obsessive-compulsive disorder and disgust. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 30, 363 – 384.