Think of a stinking piece of cheese crawling with maggots. How do you feel? Is there a feeling of nausea? Do you sense your nose wrinkle, your upper lip curl? That is a normal response to disgust. But why do we feel disgust? What is it good for? On BBC Radio, Bridget Kendall interviews surgeon Iain Hutchinson, sensory scientist John Prescott, and psychologist David Pizarro on the subject.
Core disgust is, according to scientists, the earliest form of disgust. The purpose of the emotion is to prevent us from putting potentially poisonous things into our mouth. Contamination disgust, a more advanced form of disgust, prevents us from touching things and people that could make us sick. The most advanced form of disgust is the feeling we get when we see dead bodies or people with horrible injuries. Pictures like these make us think that that might happen to us. Thus, the purpose of disgust is to protect ourselves from danger.
Disgust is also culturally determined. The target of disgust may vary from culture to culture. Westerners might find it disgusting to eat insects, while in other cultures the same insects are seen as delicacies. Disgust is a subjective response to an objective stimulus!
Interestingly, some studies found that people who are disgusted more easily tend to have more conservative political views than people who are not disgusted as easily. The reason for this is likely to be the fact that conservatives are higher in fear of risk, and fear of risk is the basis for disgust.
Disgust is not unique to humans. We can also see it e.g. in rats. The classical disgust face is the one we usually see in response to something that has a bitter taste. Putting the tongue out in this facial expression means that we are trying to get rid of something poisonous in our mouth. Our response to bitterness in pre-programmed. Our expression of disgust is similar to our response to bitterness.
A way of stopping the feeling of disgust is altering our facial expression, e.g. by holding a pencil with our upper lip. The reason for this is that not only our emotions create certain facial expressions, but also our facial expression feeds back into our thoughts and feelings. We use our facial expression to tell other people how we feel. People with Moebius syndrome are not able to express their emotions facially because the facial nerves needed have not been developed. This makes interacting with other people very difficult for them because facial expressions are an integral part of human interaction.
But let’s return to the feeling of disgust. It alters what we think of other people. When we are disgusted by someone’s facial disfigurement, we tend to rate them as e.g. more violent or less intelligent. Of course, intelligence has nothing to do with what someone’s face looks like, and neither has the proneness to violence. In this case, it is the disgust that infuses all our judgments.
The whole interview can be listened to on the BBC homepage.
What can we learn from this? Disgust is an emotion that makes, from an evolutionary perspective, a lot of sense. It protects our health and life because it makes us stay away from poisonous food and from disease. However, it also makes us judge other people in a way that is not appropriate. Thus, whenever we feel disgust, it makes sense to have a closer look at the emotion. Why do we feel disgust? Is really something potentially harmful the reason for the feeling. If so, stay away from it. If not, find out what elicits the emotion and, when your feeling of disgust is directed towards another individual, make sure this feeling of disgust does not influence your judgment of this individual.