Chapter 10: Disgust

Interpersonal Disgust

Think about a male stranger – someone you have never met. For each scenario below, think about how much disgust you would feel if you had to wear a sweater previously worn by the male stranger in each scenario. Then, sort each scenario from lowest amount of disgust to greatest amount of disgust.

 

 

Interpersonal disgust and moral disgust make up socio-emotional disgust.  Both interpersonal and moral disgust further expand the elicitors from our bodies to other people – hence the term “socio.”  Interpersonal disgust is elicited by other people and other people’s body products.  Interpersonal disgust is often elicited when we use objects that were used by other people, particularly strangers.  Four eliciting events are subsumed under interpersonal disgust:

 

  1. Strangeness/Unfamiliarity: aversion to contact with an object used by a stranger
  2. Misfortune: observing or hearing about a stranger who experienced an accident. This accident does not include an infection or moral transgression.
  3. Disease: observing or hearing about a stranger diagnosed with a contagious disease
  4. Moral Taint: observing or hearing about a stranger who committed a moral transgression on purpose.

 

A study (Rozin et al., 1994b) investigated the disgust elicited by the above four domains.  In this study, college students and their parents(!) reported how much they would like to wear a sweater that had been worn by a male stranger with various experiences (see Table 3), AFTER this sweater was washed.

 

Table 3

Sweater Manipulation and Corresponding Interpersonal Disgust Domain

A table showing sweater types, a description that was provided to the participant, and the domain of interpersonal disgust
Type of Sweater Description Provided to Participant Domain of Interpersonal Disgust
New Sweater WEaring a brand, new sweater N/A
Healthy Man Wearing a sweater worn by a healthy, male stranger Strangeness / Uniqueness
Accident Wearing a sweater worn by a man who lost his leg in a car accident he did not cause Misfortune
Homosexuality Wearing a sweater worn by a gay man who does not have AIDS Strangeness or Moral Taint
Murder Wearing a sweater worn by a man who was convicted of murder Moral Taint
AIDS from Transfusion Wearing a sweater worn by a man who contracted AIDS through a transfusion Disease
AIDS from Homosexuality Wearing a sweater worn by a gay man who has been diagnosed with AIDS Disease
Tuberculosis Wearing a sweater worn by a man with tuberculosis Disease

Adapted from “Sensitivity to Indirect Contacts with Other Persons: AIDS Aversion as a Composite of Aversion to Strangers, Infection, Moral Taint, And Misfortune,” by P. Rozin, M. Marwith, and C. McCauley, 1994b, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(3), p. 496. (https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.103.3.495). Copyright 1994 by the American Psychological Association.

The findings in Figure 6 suggest that people experience the most interpersonal disgust for the disease domain (e.g., tuberculosis, AIDS) and moral taint domain (murder).  People reported moderate interpersonal disgust for homosexuality (immoral as perceived by the participants and to an individual who accidentally lost his leg. Finally, wearing a sweater previously worn by strangers who are healthy elicited more disgust than wearing a new sweater. Rozin and others (2008) suggest that interpersonal disgust is greatest for the disease domain because interpersonal disgust might be an adaptation that protects us from mingling with individuals who MAY have a contagious disease. Similarly, interpersonal disgust may be elicited by moral violations as way to protect the harmony of the group and to maintain social hierarchies. How do you think these findings would fit if we asked people to wear a sweater previously worn by someone diagnosed with COVID?

Figure 6
Mean ratings of desire to wear a sweater worn by a male stranger with various experiences
A bar graph with 8 bars measuring desire to wear a sweater worn by a male stranger with various experiences on scale of 0 (dislike) to 100 (like). Those experiences are: New sweater(92), healthy man(72), accident(58), homosexuality(45), murder(30), AIDS from Transfusion(29), AIDS from homosexuality(26), and tuberculosis(28).

Note. *p<.05 for comparison indicated by arrows. n.s. = not significant

Adapted from “Sensitivity to Indirect Contacts with Other Persons: AIDS Aversion as a Composite of Aversion to Strangers, Infection, Moral Taint, And Misfortune. ,” by P. Rozin, M. Marwith, and C. McCauley, 1994b, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(3), p. 498. (https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.103.3.495). Copyright 1994 by the American Psychological Association.

The amount of interpersonal disgust elicited by each group should be negatively correlated with relationship closeness. In other words, we experience more interpersonal disgust when strangers are involved in the above events and less interpersonal disgust when our close others experience the same events. Stated plainly – we would experience more interpersonal disgust when we use a stranger’s toothbrush versus when we use our siblings’ toothbrush. Finally, a major difference between core and interpersonal disgust is that core disgust is elicited when we perceive contamination from another object or non-human animal. Conversely, interpersonal disgust is elicited when we perceive potential contamination from another human, particularly a stranger. Remember, animal-nature disgust is when we are reminded that we are vulnerable animals, whereas interpersonal disgust is elicited when we hear about strangers and perceive we have been contaminated by the stranger.

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Psychology of Human Emotion by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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