Disgust is a type of aversion that involves withdrawing from a person or object with strong expressions of revulsion whether real or pretended. It is one of the basic emotions and is typically associated with things that are regarded as unclean, inedible, infectious, gory or otherwise offensive. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin wrote that disgust refers to something revolting. Disgust is experienced primarily in relation to the sense of taste (either perceived or imagined), and secondarily to anything which causes a similar feeling by sense of smell, touch, or vision. Musically sensitive people may even be disgusted by the cacophony of inharmonious sounds. Fear of contamination, by insects, waste products or any kind of corruption, may inspire disgust. In this case, disgust arises from a process of inference from perceptual experience. For example, the understanding that insects have, in the past, caused pestilence my lead to a present-moment extrapolation that certain other insects, however innocuous, are disgusting because they are causing, or could cause, disease. Disgust is one of the basic emotions of Robert Plutchik's theory of emotions. It invokes a characteristic facial expression, one of Paul Ekman's six universal facial expressions of emotion. Unlike the emotions of fear, anger, and sadness, disgust is associated with a decrease in heart rate.[1] It is necessary to resist the temptation to universalize in dealing with such complex states of mind and emotions as disgust. People in many professions, such as medical care, police work, fire fighting and the military learn to repress their disgust responses and may even lose the capacity to experience disgust altogether.


Evolutionary explanations

Disgust may have an important role in certain forms of morality. Disgust is argued to be a specific response to certain things or behaviors that are dangerous or undesirable from an evolutionary perspective. One example is things that increase the risk of an infectious disease such as spoiled foods, dead bodies, other forms of microbiological decomposition, a physical appearance suggesting sickness or poor hygiene, and various body fluids such as feces, vomit, phlegm, and blood. Another example is disgust against evolutionary disadvantageous mating such as incest (the incest taboo) or unwanted sexual advances. Still another example are behaviors that may threaten group cohesion or cooperation such as cheating, lying, and stealing. MRI studies have found that such situations all active an areas in the brain associated with disgust.[2] It is important to bear in mind that, in defense of morality or in support of moral judgment, disgust can be acted out. Precisely because it is a powerful visceral affect, accompanied by strong expressions of aversion (such as the contorted “disgust face” with its pursed lips and tightened nares, and characteristic noises), disgust can be acted. Moral judgment often contains a significant element of theater.

Gender differences

Women generally report greater disgust than men, especially regarding sexual disgust which have been argued to be consistent with women being more choosy regarding sex for evolutionary reasons.[3] However, it is important to remember that all human beings can learn how to control, manage and even suppress, their emotions. It seems unlikely that a policewoman, a female fire fighter, soldier or medical person, for instance, would experience disgust more readily or more violently than her male counterpart.

The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust

According to the book The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust by Robert Rawdon Wilson, disgust may be further subdivided into physical disgust, associated with physical or metaphorical uncleanliness, and moral disgust, a similar feeling related to courses of action. For example; "I am disgusted by the hurtful things that you are saying." Moral disgust should be understood as culturally determined; physical disgust as more universally grounded. The book also discusses moral disgust as an aspect of the representation of disgust. Wilson does this in two ways. First, he discusses representations of disgust in literature, film and fine art. Since there are characteristic facial expressions (the clenched nostrils, the pursed lips), as Darwin, Ekman and others have shown, they may be represented with more or less skill in any set of circumstances imaginable. There may even be “disgust worlds” in which disgust motifs so dominate that it may seem that entire represented world is, in itself, disgusting. Second, since people know what disgust is as a primary, or visceral, emotion (with characteristic gestures and expressions), they may imitate it. Thus, Wilson argues, contempt is, for example, acted out on the basis of the visceral emotion, disgust, but is not identical with disgust. It is a “compound affect” that entails intellectual preparation, or formatting, and theatrical techniques. Wilson argues that there are many such “intellectual” compound affects, such as nostalgia and outrage, but that disgust is a fundamental and unmistakable example. Moral disgust, then, is different from visceral disgust, more conscious and more layered in performance.

Wilson links shame and guilt to disgust (now transformed, wholly or partially, into self-disgust) primarily as a consequence rooted in self-consciousness. Referring to a passage in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Wilson writes that “. . . the dance between disgust and shame takes place. A slow choreography unfolds before the mind’s-eye.” [4]

Political and legal aspects of disgust

The emotion disgust has been noted to feature strongly in the public sphere in relation to issues and debates, among other things, regarding anatomy, sex and bioethics. There is a range of views by different commentators on the role, purpose and effects of disgust on public discourse.

Leon Kass, a bioethicist, has advocated that "in crucial cases...repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it." in relation to bio-ethical issues (See: Wisdom of repugnance).

Martha Nussbaum, a jurist and ethicist, explicitly rejects disgust as an appropriate guide for legislating, arguing the "politics of disgust" is an unreliable emotional reaction with no inherent wisdom. Furthermore she argues this "politics of disgust" has in the past and present had the effects of supporting bigotry in the forms of sexism, racism and antisemitism and links the emotion of disgust to support for laws against Miscegenation and the oppressive caste system in India. In place of this "politics of disgust", Nussbaum argues for the Harm principle from John Stuart Mill as the proper basis for legislating. Nussbaum argues the harm principle supports the legal ideas of consent, the Age of majority and privacy and protects citizens. She contrasts this with the "politics of disgust" which she argues denies citizens humanity and equality before the law on no rational grounds and cause palpable social harm. (See Martha Nussbaum From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law).

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum published Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law in 2004; the book examines the relationship of disgust and shame to a society's laws. Nussbaum identifies disgust as a marker that bigoted, and often merely majoritarian, discourse employs to “place”, by diminishment and denigration, a despised minority. Removing “disgust” from public discourse constitutes an important step in achieving humane and tolerant democracies. Leigh Turner (2004) has argued that "reactions of disgust are often built upon prejudices that should be challenged and rebutted." On the other hand, writers, such as Kass, find wisdom in adhering to one's initial feelings of disgust. A number of writers on the theory of disgust find it to be the proto-legal foundation of human law. In The Hydra’s Tale, Wilson examines the claims of several jurists and legal scholars, such as William Ian Miller, that disgust must underlie positive law. “In the absence of disgust,” he observes, stating their claim,“. . . there would be either total barbarism or a society ruled solely by force, violence and terror.” The moral-legal argument, he remarks, “leaves much out of account.”[5] His own argument turns largely upon the human capacity to learn how to control, even to suppress, strong and problematic affects and, over time, for entire populations to abandon specific disgust responses.

Disgust has also figured prominently in the work of several modern philosophers. Nietzsche became disgusted with the music and orientation of Richard Wagner, as well as other aspects of 19th century culture and morality. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote widely about experiences involving various negative emotions related to disgust. [6]

Brain structures

Functional MRI experiments have revealed that the anterior insula in the brain is particularly active when experiencing disgust, when being exposed to offensive tastes, and when viewing facial expressions of disgust.[7]

Huntington's disease

Many patients suffering from Huntington's disease, a genetically transmitted progressive neurodegenerative disease, are unable to recognize expressions of disgust in others and also don't show reactions of disgust to foul odors or tastes.[8] The inability to recognize disgust in others appears in carriers of the Huntington gene before other symptoms appear.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Rozin P, Haidt J, & McCauley C.R. (2000) Disgust In M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland-Jones (Eds) Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition (pp637- 653). New York: Guilford Press
  2. ^ Tybur, J. M.; Lieberman, D.; Griskevicius, V. (2009). "Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (1): 103–122. doi:10.1037/a0015474. PMID 19586243.  edit
  3. ^ Druschel, B. A.; Sherman, M. F. (1999). "Disgust sensitivity as a function of the Big Five and gender". Personality and Individual Differences 26 (4): 739–748. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00196-2. 
  4. ^ Wilson, Robert Rawdon. (2002) The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. U Alberta Press. P. 281.
  5. ^ Wilson, Robert Rawdon. (2002) The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. U Alberta Press. P.51- 52.
  6. ^ Sartre, Jean Paul. (1943) "Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. P. 604-607.
  7. ^ Phillips, ML; Young, AW; Senior, C; Brammer, M; Andrew, C; Calder, AJ; Bullmore, ET; Perrett, DI et al. (1997). "A specific neural substrate for perceiving facial expressions of disgust". Nature 389 (6650): 495–8. doi:10.1038/39051. PMID 9333238. 
  8. ^ Mitchell, IJ; Heims, H; Neville, EA; Rickards, H (2005). "Huntington's disease patients show impaired perception of disgust in the gustatory and olfactory modalities". The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences 17 (1): 119–21. doi:10.1176/appi.neuropsych.17.1.119. PMID 15746492. http://www.neuro.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/17/1/119. 
  9. ^ Sprengelmeyer, R; Schroeder, U; Young, AW; Epplen, JT (2006). "Disgust in pre-clinical Huntington's disease: a longitudinal study". Neuropsychologia 44 (4): 518–33. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2005.07.003. PMID 16098998. 


  • Cohen, William A. and Ryan Johnson, eds. Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Praeger, 1966.
  • Kelly, Daniel. Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. MIT Press, 2011.
  • McCorkle Jr., William W. Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased: From Corpse to Concept. Peter Lang, 2010.
  • McGinn, Colin. The Meaning of Disgust. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Menninghaus, Winfried. Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation. Tr. Howard Eiland and Joel Golb. SUNY Press, 2003
  • Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Rindisbacher, Hans J. A Cultural History of Disgust. KulturPoetik. 5: 1. 2005. pp. 119–127.
  • Wilson, Robert. Disgust: A Menippean Interview. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. 34: 2. June, 2007. pp. 203–213. On Disgust: A Menippean Interview
  • Wilson, Robert Rawdon. The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. University of Alberta Press, 2002.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Disgust — Dis*gust , n. [Cf. OF. desgoust, F. d[ e]go[^u]t. See {Disgust}, v. t.] Repugnance to what is offensive; aversion or displeasure produced by something loathsome; loathing; strong distaste; said primarily of the sickening opposition felt for… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Disgust — Dis*gust , v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Disgusted}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Disgusting}.] [OF. desgouster, F. d[ e]go[^u]ter; pref. des (L. dis ) + gouster to taste, F. go[^u]ter, fr. L. gustare, fr. gustus taste. See {Gust} to taste.] To provoke disgust or… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • disgust — [dis gust′] n. [MFr desgoust, distaste < des (see DIS ) + L gustus, a taste, relish: see GUSTO] a sickening distaste or dislike; deep aversion; repugnance vt. [MFr desgouster < des (see DIS ) + L gustare, to taste] to cause to feel disgust; …   English World dictionary

  • disgust — (n.) 1590s, from M.Fr. desgoust strong dislike, repugnance, lit. distaste (16c., Mod.Fr. dégoût), from desgouster have a distaste for, from des opposite of (see DIS (Cf. dis )) + gouster taste, from L. gustare to taste (see …   Etymology dictionary

  • disgust — [n] aversion; repulsion abhorrence, abomination, antipathy, detestation, dislike, distaste, hatefulness, hatred, loathing, nausea, nauseation, nauseousness, objection, repugnance, revolt, revulsion, satiation, satiety, sickness, surfeit; concepts …   New thesaurus

  • disgust — ► NOUN ▪ strong revulsion or profound indignation. ► VERB ▪ cause disgust in. DERIVATIVES disgusted adjective disgustedly adverb. ORIGIN French desgoust or Italian disgusto, from Latin gustus taste …   English terms dictionary

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  • disgust — noun ADJECTIVE ▪ great ▪ absolute, complete, pure, total, utter ▪ mild, slight ▪ …   Collocations dictionary

  • disgust — dis|gust1 [dısˈgʌst, dız ] n [U] 1.) a strong feeling of dislike, annoyance, or disapproval with disgust ▪ Joan looked at him with disgust. in disgust ▪ Sam threw his books down in disgust and stormed out of the room. to sb s disgust ▪ Much to my …   Dictionary of contemporary English

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