In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disgust

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Disgust and the Emotions
  • Aesthetics
  • Evolution (Biological and Cultural)
  • Signaling, Expression, and Recognition
  • Development and Ontogeny
  • Dysfunction and Breakdown
  • Disgust and the Brain

Psychology Disgust
Daniel Linford, Mallory Parker, Daniel Kelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0251


Research on disgust connects to a surprisingly large variety of topics across the behavioral sciences and humanities. It serves as a case study in debates about the nature of emotions themselves, their relationship to cognition and affect, whether and how much they might be innately constrained or socially constructed, which parts might be universal (and uniquely) human, and which can vary across cultures and eras, malleable in the face of diverse social influences. These questions have been addressed by researchers using a number of approaches. Developmental psychologists have been piecing together the typical ontogenetic trajectory of disgust, the emergence of its different components during childhood and adolescence, and its progression from being mostly concerned with brute physical food- and body-based cues to becoming increasingly alert to and involved in social dynamics. Evolutionarily oriented researchers have sought to identify the primary and secondary functions of disgust, the biological and cultural adaptive challenges they were selected to help solve, and the character of the facial expressions that help transmit information relevant to solving them. As always, research on brain function as well as typical patterns of dysfunction, breakdown, and involvement with mental disorder sheds light on all of these questions. Much research has focused on investigating the variety of domains in which disgust appears to operate, ranging from food regulation to disease avoidance to sexual activity and mate selection. Researchers continue to debate the differences and similarities between episodes of disgust that are provoked by elicitors from each these different domains. Disgust operates in the moral and aesthetic domains as well, imbuing a class of norms with its singular phenomenology and motivational force, the effects and implications of which have been investigated and debated by psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers. Some argue that disgust does and should play important roles in Morality, moral judgment, and moral justification. Others are skeptical, arguing that ideally disgust would be completely absent from morality, and that we should aspire to minimize its role in moral judgments and social institutions. Another form of skepticism takes issue with the descriptive claims and empirical evidence itself, questioning whether the effects of disgust on moral judgment are as large and systematic as asserted, with some questioning whether what appears to be influencing moral judgments is genuinely disgust at all, or whether talk of ‘moral disgust’ is merely metaphorical. These areas of research are connected to recent work on disgust and politics, and how a person’s political orientation relates to disgust sensitivity, norm cognition, and their conception of the content and boundaries of the moral domain. Aestheticians have also taken an interest in disgust and the way artists have used it to evoke characteristic response in their audiences.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide broad overviews of the psychology of disgust. Authors agree that disgust was a joint cultural and evolutionary product, but differ in emphasis. For instance, Kelly 2011 and Curtis 2013 present theories as to the evolution of disgust, while Miller 1997, Douglas 2002, and Strohminger 2014 discuss the sociocultural dimensions of disgust. Miller 2004 discusses the relationship between disgust and other emotions and explores how the emotion helps agents come to an understanding of self and other. Strohminger 2014 and Rozin, et al. 2008 address neuro- and cognitive scientific approaches to disgust. Disgust has often been characterized as having a biological function in disease or infection avoidance or both (see Kelly 2011; Curtis 2013; and Rozin, et al. 2008). The biological function of disgust is thought to be important for explaining disgust’s cognitive and cultural role; according to Kelly 2011, Miller 1997, and Douglas 2002, disgust played a significant role in the development of cultural taboos and moral practices. Several works employ the empirical literature concerning disgust in order to advance normative or other philosophical goals. For example, Kelly 2011 aims to undermine the use of disgust in justifying moral conclusions, Curtis 2013 attempts to refocus our understanding so we can better utilize disgust, Herz 2012 addresses the nature vs. nurture and normalcy debates, and Miller 1997 addresses the role of disgust in our attitudes toward life.

  • Curtis, Valerie. 2013. Don’t look, don’t touch, don’t eat: The science behind revulsion. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226089102.001.0001

    Makes the case that disgust is ubiquitous. Traces disgust’s evolutionary origins to biological factors such as disease prevention and hygiene, but demonstrates that sociocultural factors are deeply rooted in our sense of disgust as well. Suggests that an understanding of the emotion could help us utilize it toward better ends.

  • Douglas, Mary. 2002. Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboos. New York: Routledge.

    Originally published in 1966, Douglas’s work is influential across a range of disciplines, from religious studies to social theory. Concern for purity is identified as a central theme in every society. This centrality is demonstrated by revealing purity’s wide-ranging influence on attitudes toward society, values, knowledge, and cosmology.

  • Herz, Rachel. 2012. That’s disgusting: Unraveling the mysteries of repulsion. New York: W.W. Norton.

    A neuroscientist’s look at the emotion of disgust that explores surprising facts about the effects of the emotion on our biology and behavior. It traces out the many tendrils disgust puts into unexpected areas of our lives, including sex, law, politics, and the ways that experiencing disgust can, in the right circumstances, be oddly pleasurable.

  • Kelly, Dan. 2011. Yuck! The nature and moral significance of disgust. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/8303.001.0001

    Surveys the empirical literature on disgust and then provides an account of disgust’s evolutionary origins which draws on gene-culture coevolutionary theory in order to explain how disgust has come to play certain roles in our moral psychology. The account serves as an evolutionary debunking argument against invoking disgust in moral justification.

  • Miller, Susan. 2004. Disgust: The gatekeeper emotion. New York: Routledge.

    Uses the boundary issues surrounding disgust to explore how the emotion relates to the sense of self and of the other. Establishes a dialectic for the self between preventing intrusions and connecting with the other. Incorporates interesting discussion of disgust’s relationship to sensory modalities such as hearing.

  • Miller, William. 1997. The anatomy of disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Details our anxious relation to bodily processes, but explains that disgust moves beyond the physical, having a substantial influence on social hierarchy. This account of disgust explains disgust as an attempt to set boundaries to chaos and illuminates what Miller argues is disgust’s positive role in removing our ultimate ambivalence toward life.

  • Rozin, P., J. Haidt, and C. R. McCauley. 2008. Disgust. In Handbook of Emotions. 3d ed. Edited by Michael Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, and L. F. Barrett. New York: Guilford Press.

    An account of disgust in individuals and cultures meant to explain how the seemingly disparate elicitors of disgust, such as food and moral offenses, could be united by one emotion. Places disgust’s origin in a presumed “rejection” response, concluding that the elicitors are united by the extension of this response.

  • Strohminger, Nina. 2014. Disgust talked about. Philosophy Compass 9.7:478–493.

    DOI: 10.1111/phc3.12137

    A summary of some of the critical questions that disgust raises about human culture and cognition. Focuses on recent developments, active points of debate, and projections about the direction in which the field is heading. Available online by subscription or purchase.

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