Examined Lives: Disgust (Session 44)

May 16th 2024, 12-1pm ET (11-12 CT)

Examined Lives

Steven P. Gilbert
The initial function of disgust was to avoid exposure to pathogens, but evolved to also regulate our sexual activity, morality and social interactions

In our next Examined Lives, we will discuss the evolutionary psychology of disgust. Disgust is considered one of the so-called basic emotions (along with anger, surprise, fear, enjoyment, and sadness). If the initial function of disgust was to avoid ingesting toxins and exposure to pathogens, it evolved to also play a role in regulating our sexual activity, morality and social interactions.

For our readings, attached as PDFs are two recent articles on disgust:

Disgust as a basic, sexual, and moral emotion (An excellent February 2024 overview of current knowledge and research on disgust)

How does disgust regulate social rejection? a mini-review (Focuses more narrowly on the role of disgust in social rejection)

You can also go to YourMorals.org where you can, after registering, take a 24-item Disgust Scale to measure your own sensitivity to disgust.

For some further information and additional resources see Jonathan Haidt’s webpage on disgust.

Haidt writes, “Disgust is a fascinating emotion. Its elicitors are a puzzle: it makes sense that we are disgusted by things that can contaminate our food, but why does this food-related emotion extend itself so deeply into our social world, so that people feel disgusted by certain ethnic groups (or by racism), by homosexuality (or by homophobia), and by a variety of social and moral violations that don’t involve anything physically contaminating?   Disgust appears to play a role in moral judgment, moral conflict, and ethno-political violence. (For the best work on disgust and politics, see David Pizarro.) Disgust has clinical ramifications, for it seems to be involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder and in a variety of phobias. (For the best work on clinical implications, see Bunmi Olatunji.) Disgust even has religious ramifications, for it appears to be part of the psychological foundation of culturally widespread ideas of purity and pollution. Many religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism) have extensive rules for regulating human bodily processes and keeping them separated from sacred objects and practices. Disgust appears to provide part of the structure of these rules and practices.”