Discover Disgust

Disgust is a powerful emotion that has only recently become the subject of serious study. It plays a role in our everyday avoidances, in our hygiene, in our social relations, in our manners and even in our morality. Since disgust is the first line of defence against infection, it has been a major focus of study for the Hygiene Centre.

The Parasite Avoidance Theory of Disgust

Val Curtis and Adam Biran first proposed the Parasite Avoidance Theory of Disgust: we suggested that this emotion evolved to help humans (and other animals) respond to and avoid matter that might harbour infectious pathogens and parasites. We then tested this idea in a huge multi-country study hosted by the BBC and showed that images manipulated to suggest an infectious disease threat were consistently found to be more disgusting than those without. We saw that women were more disgust sensitive than men and that disgust sensitivity declined with age [Curtis, Rabie, Aunger]. The images from this study are available for general use and can be downloaded HERE.

Seven types of disgust

Mícheál de Barra examined the factor structure of disgust for his PhD and found seven different types of disgust:

  • Lesions and body products
  • Sex
  • Poor hygiene
  • Atyical appearane
  • Contamination
  • Some animals, insects and food items
  • Moral infractions

We think that these may correspond to how the brain categorises infectious threats. Mícheál has developed a psychological instrument, called the London Disgust Scale, which we think better measures disgust sensitivity than current tools.  We are keen for more work to be done to validate and employ this scale in psychological studies of disgust [London disgust scale: It is free to download here].

Disgust is not a fixed response but one that varies by individual and by life experience, an exquisite example of how natural selection has created an adaptive system that can learn from experience [adaptive system].

From microbes to manners to morality

Val’s new book: Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, the Science behind Revulsión (OUP 2013/UCP 2013) sets out a new theory of manners as a set of rules that we learn early on, primarily to avoid disgusting others. Without manners we would fall prey to the infectious diseases carried by others and we wouldn’t be able to  reap the huge benefits of being a member of a social species (New Scientist article). Lapses of manners are met with disgust and shunning and occasion feelings of shame in the perpetrator. Similarly, lapses of morality (thieving, hypocrisy, exploitation, rape) are also met with disgust. It seems that manners are the evolutionary precursor to morality, and morality is the big special trick that makes us human: with the ability to cooperate on a massive scale and so transform our planet. Understanding disgust, then, couldn’t be a more urgent or important project (disgust matters paper

Don’t Look, Don’t Touch:

Val’s new book the science behind disgust has just appeared with Oxford University Press in the UK and University of Chicago Press in the USA. OUP website:
UCP website

Dont Look Dont Touch - Book about disgust by Val Curtis 2013

Some press coverage for the book:

Times review:
Washington Post:
The Independent:
Social Science Bites:
Discover disgust launch event:
Podcast about disgust

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