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The Science of Disgust

If I asked you to list some things that are disgusting, what would you say? My list (and I imagine yours too) would include:

  • Vomit
  • Rotting food
  • Feces
  • And lots of other stereotypically disgusting things.

But what about the coworker you don’t like? Or the way your wild friend behaves when they get drunk at parties? You probably wouldn’t admit to thinking they’re disgusting too, but the science shows you think they are.

Disgust is one of the most underrated emotions. It affects everything from your beliefs to who you like to spend time with.

Let’s dig into the science.

science of disgust

Disgust Influences Your Morals

When you think about all of the prejudices regarding issues like race, sexual preferences, cultural practices, etc. none of them make logical sense. There’s no reason why one group of people is better than others and yet, communities are convinced that there is something wrong with people who aren’t like the majority.  

Researchers have discovered that disgust plays a leading role in how we make moral judgements. We’re disgusted by things we think are abnormally bad. In pre-modern civilizations, this was a great trait because it prevented people from eating poisonous food and doing things that could make them sick.

However, now that we generally know what’s safe and what isn’t, our disgust response has evolved to react to things that “poison” our morals. This is why people are repulsed by actions that contradict their beliefs.

Everyone has a different threshold for what triggers their disgust. The more disgustable you are, the more judgmental you are. Using these findings, psychologist David Pizarro discovered that people’s threshold for disgust directly correlates with where they stand on the political spectrum. Extreme conservatives are easily disgusted while it is challenging to gross out a fierce liberal.

Watch David Pizarro’s TED talk to learn more about the strange ways disgust affects your political beliefs:

It Also Makes You More Judgmental

Even if you’re an open-minded liberal who isn’t disgusted by moral issues, researchers have found that feeling disgusted by stereotypically disgusting things like foul smells makes you more judgmental in the moment.

science of disgust

In a shocking disgust experiment, Pizarro and his colleagues welcomed a group of people into a room filled with fart spray. Once inside, he asked them to rate how they felt about various groups of people including homosexuals and the elderly. While exposed to the foul smell, people were more likely to disapprove of others than when they are in normal environments. In other words, feeling disgusted by one thing can make you more repulsed by everything in the moment.

In another study done by Carnegie Mellon University, psychologists showed one group of participants disgusting video clips before having them negotiate to sell various items. That group sold their products for just over half the price of participants who were showed neutral videos.

Psychologists call this the “disgust disposal effect” which, rational or not, causes us to try to get rid of things that disgust us. The shocking part of this is that the experiments prove that it’s not just genuinely disgusting things that are subject to this effect. The feeling of disgust is so powerful that it makes us want to remove ourselves from the situation whether it’s by judging other people to psychologically distance ourselves from them or accepting poor deals in negotiations so we can end them sooner.

Are you fascinated by this science? Do you want to learn more secrets behind disgust and the other emotions that influence our everyday lives? Sign up for our FREE 10 day email course:

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About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.

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