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Vol. 9, No. 6, 2010
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Robert J. Lewis
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There are two main theoretical perspectives on the development of the emotions. The first makes use of evolutionary psychology and holds that emotions are the product of natural selection. The second sees emotions as being socially constructed dependent on a specific cultural context. The empirical evidence, however, supports both perspectives.

The aim of this essay is to present some arguments in support of the second claim in relation to the emotion of disgust.

Since Charles Darwin published his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), numerous adaptive-evolutionary theoretical treatments of emotion have emerged. Evolutionary approaches to the emotions and the way they affect human behaviour have ranged from broad theoretical models of emotion to empirical investigations of specific. The evolved emotions, experienced and expressed universally by all humans, are usually labeled ‘basic,’ and there is considerable agreement about the emotions in this category.

Disgust is considered to be one of the basic emotions. It was first introduced as a subject of study by Darwin. Though long neglected, disgust has recently become the focus of intense investigation. Paul Rozin, Jonathan Haidt and Clark McCauley have argued that in the course of human evolution disgust as a rejection response to bad taste has been extended into the social domain, where it may be elicited by immoral and unjust acts. Disgust has cultural and
societal implications, and it influences human behaviour on a daily basis. It affects more than a person’s food choices; it has specific implications as to whom one chooses as a friend, what religion a person adheres to, and one’s sense of morality. Hence disgust, along with fear, is a primary means for socialization.

Of the numerous elicitors of disgust, contact with other people plays a specific role: it brings us into contact with other peoples’ body products and it is seen as a possible contamination which may not be reduced by ordinary cleaning methods. Interpersonal disgust, almost always mediated by the notion of contamination, is considered to be an independent category of disgust elicitors. It is directly connected with social stratification: it “clearly discourages contact with other human beings who are not intimates, and can serve the purpose of maintaining social distinctiveness and social hierarchies.”

Although in recent decades psychological investigation into the emotions has paid significant attention to cultural specifics and cross-cultural comparison, it often does not address the cultural environment in detail. Psychological and social aspects of the emotions can also be explored within the naturalistic program of anthropological research, which aims to explain social phenomena as outcomes of interactions of universal cognitive processes on the one hand, and social inputs on the other. Our aim is to apply this approach in the study of disgust in relation to interpersonal relationships.

Haidt, Rozin and McCaulay’s theory points to a possible link between degrees of intimacy and disgust; however, this link cannot be investigated without a thorough exploration of social context. Ethnographic research into a given social environment might help us obtain more detailed descriptions of people’s experiences of disgust in relation to various social categories.

Our research was conducted in a community of students living in student halls in Bratislava. Our main claim is that social relationships are important not only in terms of interpersonal disgust, but that it may influence expressions of core disgust and animal-nature disgust, considered by Rozin, Haidt and McCauley to be earlier stages in the evolutionary development of this emotion. More specifically, we argue that people’s representations of feelings of disgust towards elicitors linked to certain persons are conditioned by the social categories those persons belong to.


“The output” side of disgust (physiology, behaviour, expression) has remained relatively constant in cultural evolution, while the elicitors and meaning of disgust have been transformed and greatly expanded. Disgust originated as a general mammalian rejection response to bad tastes (distaste). In adults, it is a food rejection response directed at the nature or origin of foods rather than their sensory properties (core disgust).

Research has also suggested that body products and some animals belong to the category of core disgust. Consideration of the possible elicitors of disgust, however, led to the conclusion that everyday disgust covers a much wider range than simply food, body products, and animals. It includes poor hygiene, inappropriate sexuality, violations of the normal body envelope (gore, surgery, deformity), and death (animal-nature disgust). Yet another level of expansion includes contact with certain other people (interpersonal contamination) and a subset of moral offences, referred to as . sociomoral disgust.

Disgust elicitors have therefore expanded from food to the social order. Disgust elicitors can be understood as a prototypically defined category, in which, as in a family resemblance category, all members are related, yet there may be no single feature shared by all members of the category. This flexibility enabled the expansion of disgust into the social domain: over the course of evolution, human societies took advantage of core disgust in constructing their moral and social lives, and in educating their children about what to avoid. Thus disgust is based on evolved psychological mechanisms, but at the same time it is socially constructed: “The use of embodied schemata in social life may be a universal psychological and cultural process, yet the particular constellation of bodily and social meanings must be arranged or filled in by each culture. ”

Rozin, Haidt and McCauley’s research has shown that earlier stages of disgust -- core disgust and animal-nature disgust -- look relatively similar across cultures. Cultures should mainly differ “in the degree to which disgust is related to moral judgment.” We argue, however, that cultural context can considerably influence even the expressions of core disgust and animal-nature disgust. An essential notion in this respect is contamination response (for example, the rejection of a potential food if it even briefly came into contact with disgusting entities) involving history of contact rather than sensory properties. The notion of contamination “is quite sophisticated in requiring a separation of appearance and reality. There is no sensory residue of past contamination in a contaminated entity; it is the history of contact that is crucial.”

If we understand disgust elicitors as embodied schemata, some of them involve representations of certain persons not only in cases of sociomoral disgust, but also in reference to core disgust and animal-nature disgust. The history of contact might include representations of particular persons and therefore might be conditioned by the degree of intimacy (how long one knows a person and what kind of relationship one has with her). Furthermore, apart from a person’s touch or presence, interpersonal contamination might be carried out in various ways which can include the elicitors of core disgust (body products) and animal-nature disgust (sex, hygiene, envelope violations). To explore the relation between social bonds and disgust we can investigate sensitivity towards those elicitors in two cases:

(1) representations of entities which do not include contact with particular persons;
(2) representations linked to particular persons in a direct or indirect way.

The second category of disgust elicitors has a social dimension, which means that in this case it is ‘who’ elicits disgust that is crucial rather than ‘what’ the thing is as such. Regular differences between responses to those two types of elicitors might indicate that people’s representations of feelings of disgust are influenced not only by physiological processes, but also by social factors.

In our preliminary research we concentrated on the second type of elicitors. We did not investigate the immediate physiological reactions conditioned by the evolved psychological mechanisms: we paid attention to how people explicitly represent their feelings and in what way their representations are conditioned by the social context. More specifically, we looked at various social categories in relation to disgust elicitors and tried to find out how social distance or social bonds influence the explicit expressions of core disgust.

We focused on several categories of people corresponding to different degrees of intimacy: partner, parent, good friend, and acquaintance. Furthermore, we considered social categories corresponding to non-intimate relationships: authority, enemy, and several impersonal categories. We assume that disgust is conditioned by the degree of intimacy: the less intimate people are, the more intense their feelings of disgust towards elicitors linked to particular persons; on the other hand, the more intimate people are, the greater the tendency to suppress feelings of disgust and to find reasons for them. We suppose that this tendency is manifested in reference to core disgust and animal-nature disgust.


The Bratislavan group consisted of eight students (three men and five women) aged between eighteen and twenty-four. They lived in the student halls for varying lengths of time. We used three research methods: an ethnographic interview, the Disgust Scale questionnaire and a survey that included questions referring to the disgust elicitors linked to the respondents’ relationships.

The research confirmed that in respect to gender differences, women were more sensitive than men. Our assumption about the differences in relation to the degrees of intimacy has been generally confirmed as well. The degree of intimacy was crucial in responses to the questions related to the personal categories (parent, partner, friend, acquaintance, teacher, and enemy): the more intimate a person was, the less intense the feelings of disgust expressed in reference to all disgust elicitors. Of the impersonal categories the most intense feelings of disgust corresponded to the categories of dirty person and drunk.

On the other hand, disgust expressed towards enemies (actual individuals) was comparable to disgust expressed towards the impersonal categories of dirty person and drunkard in all domains of disgust elicitors. Direct contact with body products and the consequences of inappropriate hygiene was perceived to be more disgusting than indirect contact; but the intensity of the feelings expressed diminished where the close social categories were concerned.

Further aspects of the disgust expressed were related to the broader social context and to the notion of what is appropriate in a certain situation. In particular, giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and assisting a person who is vomiting were regarded as less disgusting experiences than other kinds of contact with body fluids.

Previous research has shown that across all regions of the world the bodily fluids of strangers were found to be more disgusting that those of close relatives: “Sharing a person’s bodily fluids becomes more disgusting as that person becomes less familiar because strangers are more likely to carry novel pathogens and hence present a greater disease threat to a naive immune system.” Although where the subject was involved in helping a particular person, the feelings of disgust expressed increased in accordance with increasing social distance; in general they appeared to be less intense in comparison with other situations. It seems that an additional cultural notion (it is appropriate to help people who are sick or in danger) diminishes the intensity of feelings of disgust expressed and leads people to overcome them in order that they can behave in accordance with the social norms.

Disgust towards seeing inappropriate sexual intercourse was also modified by social categories, though inversely: the most disgusting experience corresponded to the most intimate categories of people (partner and parent). On the other hand, imagined sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex in an inappropriate place was not regarded as disgusting if it was a partner, but the same experience with other categories of people -- intimate as well as non-intimate -- was considered far more disgusting. In further research it would be interesting to compare these findings with previous results on the gender differences in emotional responses to imagined sexual contact with kin, friends, and strangers which revealed that women treated friends more like kin, whereas men treated friends very much like strangers.

Representations of the impersonal category of a disabled person referred to envelope violation (in our questionnaire this was represented by an amputated hand), that is, to one of the main elicitors of animal-nature disgust. However, disgust expressed towards this category in all domains of the elicitors was rather mild and comparable to the categories of teacher
and acquaintance. This finding might indicate that expressions of disgust were suppressed because it was inappropriate to show negative feelings towards a disabled person: according to the social norms present in the environment, the disabled deserve compassion and should not be treated differently to others.

On the other hand, the most intense feelings of disgust towards impersonal categories were expressed towards the dirty person. In our research, we used the concept of dirt to signify the basic meaning of unhygienic and possibly a contaminated substance; however, in the broader sense it is a rather complicated concept that might refer to various violations of the existing order, as Mary Douglas has shown. According to her, anomalies or things that do not fit existing structures might be perceived as ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean,’ as dangerous and contaminating. Dirt never exists by itself; this concept always refers to social classifications. Thus in further research it would be useful to investigate various conceptions of dirt in relation to social relationships.


We have tried to demonstrate the important role of social context in investigating the emotion of disgust. Previous research has shown that people generally have ambivalent feelings about food, sex and other disgust elicitors; it is cultural context that gives meaning to people’s experiences, and thus feelings of disgust towards the same things might vary across cultures. One major source of variation arises from cultural differences in conception of the body; another source is the multiplicity of potential threats to the self or soul. We have argued, however, that further differences relating to cultural context might arise from social bonds and degrees of intimacy. Perception of disgust elicitors depends on various socio-cultural schemas; if they include representations of particular persons, the intensity of disgust depends on social categorization.

Our preliminary ethnographic study has indicated that responses to disgust elicitors linked to certain people or certain social categories might be conditioned by particular relationships, on the one hand, and socio-cultural schemas, on the other hand. These schemas are important in determining how people perceive contact with disgust elicitors: what is disgusting in one
situation might be perceived to be less disgusting in another. If the social norms require that feelings of disgust be suppressed, then people do not express them and behave according to social demands. Our study also indicates different directions future research might take.

Apart from individual differences in sensitivity towards disgust elicitors, there might be differences in how people perceive close people (kin and friends) and strangers of various kinds. Another question to be investigated is the concept of dirt, which plays an important role in relation to disgust.

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