Clever Apes: Deconstructing Disgust

Disgust Look -People With Severe Depression Have Difficultly Recognizing Disgust - HumintellFrom WBEZ’s Clever Apes

What is disgust, and where does it come from? There are a few places where scientists can look for clues, starting with what disgusts people. We did a decidedly unscientific survey of kids at the Museum of Science and Industry, and the results line up pretty well with what actual experts say. They break out in a few categories: bodily secretions (blood, vomit, feces, puss), animals that could carry disease (insects, vermin), and certain foods (pot pies … don’t ask). A few common ones our pint-sized sample group didn’t bring up, thankfully, include corpses and incest.

Then there’s the strong physiological response to disgust, especially nausea and facial contortions. According to psychologist Paul Rozin, that evidence indicates that disgust has its origins in avoiding toxic agents in stuff we eat. Evolutionary anthropologist Dan Fessler adds that the feeling then gets generalized to all sorts of other things, from sexual mores all the way up to our deepest moral convictions.

One place where Rozin and Fessler part ways: Rozin, one of the forefathers of disgust theory, believes disgust serves to distance us from our most animalistic behaviors: dying, procreating, eating, pooping. By this view disgust is existential armor, protecting us from having to come to terms with our bestial nature. Fessler is skeptical of that argument (in part because of his own experimental results). He argues the disgust response has become a way to define and protect boundaries – from national borders right down to the boundaries of our own bodies.

In any case, disgust seems to be a basic human emotion, written into our nature by evolution, shaping and shaped by our culture.

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One response to “Clever Apes: Deconstructing Disgust”

  1. Kashif Ansari says:

    disgust is when you diss all gustatory responses. gustation involves the in-take of what is out-side. but if something like say black coffee or flaxseeds makes you want to go ew! or puke…when then that is disgusting. but most members of western civilization would choose a steak over boiled brown rice and green vegetables and they would also choose a mcdonald’s double quarterpounder with extra cheese over liquid tofu since their tastebuds are not accustomed to the vegetarian and vapid cuisine that is hardly exciting or the kind that one would look forward to in his or her right mind. but then this diss-gust or “yummy in my tummy” response is a cultural response that is built up in childhood by very feral and real experiences that have positivity and negativity associated with them. a born vegetarian would be sickened by the sight much less the taste of steak. and a japanese individual would choose tofu over the mcdonald’s fare. because of previous conditioning and habit which is very difficult to break (or make).

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