Emotion - Disgust: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Sarah Cobarrubias
In this lesson, we will discuss disgust. We'll define the emotion and see how it's important to human survival, as well as examine the correlation between disgust and aggression. At the end, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is Disgust?

A face expressing disgust
Face showing disgust

Imagine you've returned home from a week-long vacation in Hawaii to find that your refrigerator has malfunctioned. You open the fridge door and recoil when you are hit with the repulsive odor of rotten meats, cheeses and vegetables. This is disgust - the feeling of intense displeasure or revulsion in response to an offensive or revolting object, person or behavior. It is considered one of the six basic human emotions and is found among all cultures.

Causes and Characteristics of Disgust

We already know that revolting or offensive things elicit disgust; however, there are more complex factors to this powerful emotion. English naturalist Charles Darwin conducted some of the earliest research into disgust and its elicitors. In his book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, he narrates a revealing encounter with this powerful emotion. While on a trip to Tierra del Fuego, Darwin was eating some cold preserved meat when a native man touched his food. The native man expressed disgust at the food's texture, while Darwin felt disgust that a naked savage had touched his food. He realized some key characteristics about disgust: that it is a cross-cultural emotion, that it can be caused by different things and that what is considered disgusting can vary by culture.

While culture has a great effect on what provokes disgust, there are select things that tend to elicit this emotion among all cultures. Review the list below for some of these common, cross-cultural disgust elicitors:

  • Bodily fluids and excretions (like feces, urine, pus and vomit)
  • Spoiled foods
  • Poor hygiene
  • Bodily violations (like blood and mutilation)
  • Death and corpses
  • Animals and insects (like cockroaches, worms and rats)

How We Display Disgust

After stumbling across the characteristics of disgust, Darwin then went on to study the physical reactions involved in the emotion. He found that people who are only mildly disgusted may only frown and use their hands or bodies to push the disgusting object away. More severe disgust may cause one to drop his or her mouth open, purse the lips, spit and verbalize the emotion with a sound of disgust (i.e., 'ach' or 'eew'). In extreme cases, people may display an open mouth, wrinkled nose and contorted face, as though they are going to vomit. Some may actually vomit.

Disgust and Survival

The human survival explanation for disgust is a fairly logical one - for evolutionary purposes, humans should avoid things that can infect or hurt our bodies, and so we develop intense aversions to those harmful things so that we automatically recoil or shield ourselves from them. It's believed that the emotion of disgust has evolved in response to rotten or toxic foods that harm humans; our bodies have learned to shun disease-carrying pathogens to save our immune systems from having to fight them off or to save ourselves from death. In fact, you may have noticed that the items on the list of cross-cultural disgust elicitors, above all, have the potential to spread disease or cause illness or infection.

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