Disgust: The Forgotten Emotion

January 23, 2019
We normally feel disgusted when we're about to eat something that we don't like, but sometimes we can also feel disgusted about an idea or lifestyle. Is disgust possibly a cultural condition?

We don’t talk much about disgust although it’s one of the basic emotions. When we want to eat something but perceive an unpleasant smell, we automatically decide to throw it away. The same happens when we smell something unpleasant in the kitchen and automatically know that something has gotten bad and we need to throw it away to protect our health.

Do you remember the last time you experienced disgust? How did you feel? Did it happen with food? Did you try the food again? Would you be able to eat an insect? Do you think being disgusted by one thing or another is a cultural thing?

From a young age, disgust remains present in our lives. For this reason, it’s important to know what lies hidden behind this emotion. Sometimes, something more, like the way we perceive the world, lurks behind disgust. Let’s take a closer look.

When do we experience disgust?

We feel disgusted when we eat something that’s gotten bad or are close to it. Disgust is an adaptive reaction that prevents us from harming our health in certain situations. But this emotion can also arise from an idea that disgusts us. Therefore, the intention of avoiding being contaminated lies behind this emotion.

For example, when we open the refrigerator ready to eat a good slice of watermelon and find it half rotten, we just end up throwing it away. Its rotten state informed us that it could make us sick. Another example might include wanting to pour milk into our coffee, but smelling something sour when open the carton. This makes us just pour the milk down the drain.

The bad appearance and smell of many foods tell us that we better throw them away rather than eat them, as they could make us sick. In the same way, we can consider disgust an adaptive emotion that protects us from harmful situations. 

According to different studies, disgust is related to the insular cortex. In fact, injuries in this structure prevent the individual from both experiencing this emotion and recognizing it in others.

A woman holding a plate of pasta and looking disgusted.

Is disgust cultural?

The experience of disgust may vary between cultures. Despite being an emotion that helps us avoid bodily harm, it’s true that certain things depend on culture. For example, some foods can produce disgust despite being non-toxic. But it’s important to note that this emotion is accompanied by a characteristic facial expression that can be observed in people who are blind from birth, in addition to having a typical physiological, psychological, and behavioral response.

For example, Spain’s national dish is paella, which contains shrimp or prawns. Although this dish is considered a delicacy in that country, few Spaniards would feel excited about the prospect of eating a plate of grasshoppers or crickets. However, in some countries, insects represent a real delicacy, just like paella. In others, they arouse the deepest aversion.

A recipe can taste delicious to some and horrible to others, even in the same country. Snails represent a clear example of this. Therefore, this emotion also depends on the individual’s personality and the education they receive.

It’s true that there are more basic issues that tend to make us feel disgusted, such as a nauseating odor, but it’s important to take into account the influence of culture. Depending on our culture, we can feel more or less disgusted about something.

Ideological disgust

Undoubtedly, experiencing this emotion helps protect us from toxicity. But this emotion goes beyond food. Many people also express the disgust they feel toward another culture, race, religion, and country, among other things.

Some people perceive other ideologies as toxic to themselves. They think that those ideologies can damage their beliefs or life in general. This type of disgust contributes to, for example, racism and xenophobia. If we consider other races and people toxic, we reject them and avoid them.

A distinct facial expression goes along with the feeling of disgust.

According to the results of the studies carried out by Paul Rozin, a psychologist who dedicated himself to studying this emotion, disgust is a rejection of events that make us remember our animal nature.

Rozin and his collaborators pointed out that although disgust is a defense mechanism that originated to avoid bad food, little by little it has dissociated from those elements. Thus, we can feel disgusted by someone who violates our moral rules.

In addition, according to these authors, the fact that we feel disgusted by people who are racist, abusive, or display other negative behaviors could mean that we’re protecting human dignity within the social order. What do you think?

Rozin, Paul and April Fallon. “A Perspective on Disgust.” Psychological Review. 1987. https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/web.sas.upenn.edu/dist/7/206/files/2016/09/94DisgustPerspectivesPRev87-20oqhhu.pdf