Disgust has been described as an evolutionarily important emotion. According to Darwin, the function of disgust is to prevent orally ingesting contaminants or other biologically harmful substances. There are characteristic reactions associated with disgust, including physical (such as nausea), psychophysiological (muscle tension around the nose and mouth, reduction of vascular tension), and behavioral (typically avoidance). Overall, the description offered by Darwin, and the associated reactions described here, are straightforward and unidimensional.
While Darwin’s conceptualization may have been unidimensional, recent research has shown that disgust is multifaceted. According to contemporary disgust theory, there are eight broad areas of disgust elicitors, or stimuli, that provoke disgust reactions:
- Food: Culturally unacceptable foods, or unacceptable combinations, provoke disgust. An example would be ice cream on chick
- Animals: Contact with food by an animal, particularly one associated with unclean places. For example, a spider walking across a cookie.
- Death: Stimuli associated with death, such as cemeteries, cremation urns, or coffins.
- Sex: Any culturally unacceptable sexual practices can lead to disgust reactions.
- Body Products: Feces, urine, or mucus are examples of body products that can lead to disgust reactions.
- Body Envelope Violations: Images of or actual exposure to internal organs or viscera.
- Sympathetic Magic: This occurs when an otherwise neutral object comes in contact with an item associated with an item for consumption. For example, a label that says “saliva” placed on a cup that is known to contain spring water.
- Moral: Any contact with items associated with immorality or individuals deemed immoral.
Development Of Disgust
According to recent conceptualizations, disgust develops largely through a process called evaluative conditioning. This is promoted through two major routes. One is via instructional learning such as through caregivers, who identify items as disgusting (i.e., “yucky”) while making characteristic facial expressions for disgust when teaching young children about the environment. This is typically in reference to items that should not be eaten or put in the mouth.
Broadly speaking, disgust reactions to different stimuli may develop after childhood, often for items associated with previously established disgust-provoking stimuli or by labeling those items as such. For example, there is nothing about a sweater that is disgusting. However, if one were informed that it was cleaned but previously was covered with maggots, there would be a reluctance to wear that sweater because of the label and associated image bestowed on it.
Currently, there are a few ways of evaluating disgust reactions. One way is via a self-report measure. A few major instruments exist for evaluating disgust, with sound psychometric properties. Another effective approach involves assessment of muscle tension around the nostrils or upper lip. Each of these areas typically grows tighter when exposed to items that evoke disgust reactions. Blood pressure is an assessment that is being validated in some laboratories for evaluating disgust reactions. Items that provoke disgust should lead to lower blood pressure.
Contemporary Applications Of Disgust Research
A great deal of recent work has concentrated on the role of disgust in different forms of psychopathology. Most notably, there is increased evidence that disgust is implicated in many specific phobias, particularly blood-injury-injection, spider, snake, and other small animal phobias. Some data also suggest that disgust plays a role in contamination fear associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is an active area of new developments in psychology.
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