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Disgust

 

Explanations > Emotions > Disgust

Disgust is... | The social power of disgust | So what

 

Disgust is...

Disgust is the emotion felt towards a person when they have transgressed rules, in particular values. It can also be felt towards something unhealthy.

Disgust evolved as a revulsion to prevent the person from doing unhealthy things like eating rotten food or touching faeces. The nose is hence an important disgust-detecting organ. Only later did it develop into a social emotion in which the nose still wrinkles up.

Curtis (2013) identifies seven major triggers for disgust:

  • People who we see as atypical in size
  • People with obvious signs of sickness such as pus-filled lesions
  • Unhygienic behaviour such as spitting
  • Signs of sexual infection and sexual fluids generally
  • Spoilt food
  • Animals that transmit infection, such as rats
  • Contamination

Disgust is a particularly strong feeling and may be associated with hate or anger, for example as might happen when a person exposes their genitals in public.

The social power of disgust

Disgust is a powerful force in social relationships, which makes it significant in persuasive situations.

Cleanliness

The health-based origin of disgust leads to the importance of cleanliness in social situations. A person who is unwashed and smells of sweat and grime will trigger feelings of disgust.

Standards for cleanliness do vary with different cultures. This often relates to the availability of the means for washing and the convenience of doing so. A person with an en-suite bathroom and ready hot water is likely to wash more often and more thoroughly than someone living in a mountain shack.

Values

Values are the social rules by which we live, which tell us what is right and wrong, good and bad. If a person transgresses thee rules, for example by harming a vulnerable person, then they are likely to trigger disgust in other people.

Taboos

All cultures have taboos, things which must not be done, said or even thought. There are many taboos around sex, death, religion, aggression, cleanliness, food, drugs and so on. For example, incest is a common and very strong taboo. In some religions, there is a taboo against criticising the deity or words from holy books. Taboos and values are often closely connected, with a primary value that taboos must be avoided.

Disgust is a typical reaction to the breaking of a taboo, with the threat of ostracization being a strong and oft-used response.

Motivation

The most common effect of disgust is for the person to distance themself from the object of disgust. This is natural in the basic health motivation to avoid disease.

Disgust can be quite reliably invoked, more so that many other emotions. If you put a plate of putrified meat crawling with works in front of people, most will immediately back away. Likewise newspaper stories of abuse will disgust most people.

Interestingly, disgust can be significantly reduced by sexual arousal, including dirt, smell and bodily fluids. Other arousal, including anger and fear can also reduce the impact of disgust to some effect.

Punishment

The primary threat of disgust is that the offender is either close to the line of being cast out, or has passed that point and should be rejected. This is a powerful incentive for people in social groups to avoid things that will cause disgust.

Relationship failure

Disgust and contempt are closely related to relationship failure. If you are disgusted by your partner's words or actions, then the chance of you staying with them is significantly reduced.

So what?

Avoid disgusting others at all costs if you seek at all to persuade them. Ensure you are clean and tidy, avoid swearing and treat others well. Avoid tricky subject in conversation such as sex, religion and politics.

You can sway people away from certain items by showing that these are items worthy of disgust, for example by being disgusted yourself. This method is used by politicians who 'dish the dirt' on opponents. TV and newspapers also make significant use of disgust, partly because it is can so easily be provoked.

See also

Contempt, Values

 

Curtis, V. (2013). Don't Look, Don't Touch, Oxford University Press

 

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