Psychology of Disgust

Disgust – (n) a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.  (v) cause (someone) to feel revulsion or profound disapproval.

We have all felt the emotional response of being revolted by something.  On a number of occasions I have opened a lid to find maggots or mold and immediately had a physical, visceral reaction to the point of dry heaving and immediately dropped and/or retracted from the object of my disgust.  While the reaction is not as intense, this feeling is something I have noticed socially too.  There are behaviors, mannerism, speech and actions that I find disgusting.

It is believed that the emotional response of disgust originated to avoid contamination.  Things that illicit this response are things that we believe if put into our bodies or touch might contaminate us.  Originally the response developed to help our hunting-gathering ancestors to avoid orally ingesting items that had gone rancid or posed a threat; as maggots, certain smells and molds still do.  As we developed into more socially and psychologically complex and sophisticated beings so too did our relationship with disgust.  Disgust grew in tandem with culture and is often culturally specific.

Depending on the individual they may view a large range of behaviors, habits, traits, and thoughts with disgust. Personally I find things like living in filth, littering, excessive cursing, lying, child and emotional abuse, and bad breath disgusting, but clearly others do not.  Disgust is an interesting thing, while it partially arises from cultural norms; it is also a reflection of an individual’s values, psychology and on occasion pathology (i.e. OCD).  Having a healthy sense of disgust may serve us well from contaminating our bodies, minds and lives with people, ideas and things of questionable characteristics or find intolerable.  Having an enhanced sense of disgust indicates a higher level of discernment.

The psychology of disgust is particularly interesting in regard to sex.  If you think about what we do during sex, in any other context or in a state of non-arousal would be considered disgusting.  During sex we exchange a whole assortment of body fluids, from sweat and saliva -to- semen and sometimes blood and for some fecal matter which at all other times we actively try to avoid.  It has been said that in order to have sex we must suspend disgust and this is what makes sex an intimate act.   Of course pleasure and a heightened sense of intimacy is often the reward.  The fact that we take rape seriously is in part to our intrinsic knowledge that sex is, or at least can be, disgusting.  In the same vain we culturally take female rape more seriously than male (even though the occurrence is statistically similar when accounting for prison population) suggests the receptive nature of female sexuality is worthy of greater protection and when violated is more disgusting. Even in today’s world of short-term mating, largely made possible by technology (birth control, easy access to abortion and better healthcare), promiscuity is still considered an undesirable trait for both genders.  There are a number of reasons this may be true including the fear of contamination (STDs), increased divorce and infidelity probability, reduced levels of oxytocin, and host of other not so attractive data, but somewhere lurking too is the psychology of disgust.

The question is, does disgust continue to serve and evolutionary or cultural purpose?  Things we found disgusting a century ago are no longer today and perhaps are even celebrated or envied.  Minus smoking, I can’t think of anything that has become increasingly subjected to our disgust. Culturally we now seemingly condone the seven deadly sins and either confuse them with virtues or are campaigning for their acceptance.  I believe disgust, like shame; has a place in healthy society.  These are the things that we bump into and can redirect our course back to health and happiness.  Perhaps if we were more disgusted with things it would be the catalyst for change.  As we become less disgusted, we also become increasingly apathetic.  Disgust is such a powerful emotion, even beyond anger which can be stewed; it would certainly provoke a reaction.

I am thoroughly disgusted.

Christian X

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