Chapter 10: Disgust

Moral Disgust

Moral disgust occurs when we think about moral violations committed by other people. I emphasize other people because when we commit a moral violation, typically that causes a self-conscious emotion such as shame or guilt. There is some overlap between animal-nature, interpersonal, and moral disgust. For instance, sexually inappropriate acts or stories about violent murders could elicit both moral and animal-nature disgust. In addition, moral taint is one of the eliciting events in interpersonal disgust. We may see this overlap because the four broad groups of disgust expanded over time.

Cross-cultural differences in moral disgust exist (Haidt et al., 1997). For instance, North Americans experience moral disgust when another person violates their own or others’ individual rights. Examples include when someone holds socially inappropriate attitudes or when someone violates the basic rights of others (e.g., betrayal, racism). Japanese experience moral disgust when another person fails to meet uphold the group or relationship norms. Hindu cultures experience disgust toward caste or purity violations.  For instance, marrying or working outside of one’s caste might elicit disgust in other people.  In India, a group referred to as the “untouchables” are born into the lowest caste and thus experience discrimination and hate crimes, possibly because they elicit disgust in other members of society – simply because of their caste assigned at birth.  See this National Geographic article (Mayell, 2003) for more information about the untoucables. For both cultures, moral disgust is elicited by violation of some rules or norms, but in North American the violation effects individual people, whereas in Eastern cultures the violation effects groups or relationships.

Some disagreement exists over whether moral violations by others cause moral disgust or anger. Researchers (Haidt et al., 1997; Rozin et al., 2008) who believe moral disgust is a separate emotion from anger, point out that across cultures, languages use the same word to describe both core and moral disgust (see Table 4 for examples).

Figure 4
Words that describe both core and moral disgust across languages

A table with languages and their respective term describing moral and core disgust
Language Term describing moral and core disgust
English disgusted
French dégoût
German Ekel
Hebrew go-al
Japanese ken-o
Chinese aw-shin
Russian orvraschenie
Spanish asco
Bengali ghenna

 

Other psychologists believe that violations of immorality cause anger, and not disgust. Nabi (2002) asked participants to describe memories of times they felt “disgust,” “disgusted,” “revulsion,” “grossed out,” or “angry.” Trained coders analyzed the stories for themes of anger OR themes of disgust (see Table 5). Results showed that when participants recalled times they felt “anger,” “disgust”, and “disgusted,” a majority of the participants discussed themes of anger, not disgust. Almost all the participants who recalled times they were “grossed out” discussed themes of disgust. The word repulsion triggered themes of disgust for a majority of participants (56%), but still a large portion (44%) discussed anger themes when recalling repulsion.

Table 5
Coded Anger Themes for Emotion Conditions

A table of anger-themed essay topics, and emotion trigger words
Anger Topic Anger (n = 25) Disgust (n = 28) Disgusted (n = 23) Repulsed (n = 27) Grossed Out (n = 24)
Anger-Themed*** 100% 75% 74% 44% 8%
Treated unfairly/disrespected 44% 20% 16% 17%
Offended by others’ actions 19% 20% 20% 3% 4%
Cheated on/lied to 4% 13% 12% 10% 4%
Rumor/gossip 11% 3% 8%
Self-blame for actions 4% 7% 3%

Table 5
Coded Disgust Themes for Emotion Conditions

A table of disgust-themed essay topics, and emotion trigger words
Disgust Topic Anger (n = 25) Disgust (n = 28) Disgusted (n = 23) Repulsed (n = 27) Grossed Out (n = 24)
Disgust-themed*** 0% 25% 26% 56% 92%
Blood/dead bodies 3% 4% 21% 32%
Vomit 3% 3% 20%
Feces 3% 12%
Inappropriate sexual acts 7% 12% 14% 4%
Bugs/Rodents 3% 8%

Reproduced from “The theoretical versus the lay meaning of disgust: Implications for emotion research,” by R.L. Nabi, 2002, Cognition & Emotion, 16(5), p. 699. (https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930143000437). Copyright 2002 by Psychology Press.

Coding was conducted on the intensity of anger and disgust evident in the essays. When participants recalled a time they felt “anger” or “disgusted,” the coders concluded the essays contained more intense feelings of anger than disgust. But, when participants wrote about a time they felt “grossed out” coding revealed that participants experienced more intense disgust than anger. For terms “disgust” and “repulsed” no differences were found between intensity of anger and disgust.
After writing an essay about their assigned term, participants completed self-report measures about whether they felt like avoiding or approaching during the emotional experience (see Table 6). Avoiding examples included “feel like throwing up,” and “wanting to avoid something.” Approach examples included “feel like hitting someone,” and “wanting to overcome some obstacle.” In general, people recalling a time they were “grossed out” reported greater desire to avoid and less desire to approach compared to the other conditions. Taken together, these findings suggest that the phrase “grossed out” definitely elicits avoidance behaviors that accompany disgust. But, terms like “disgust” and “disgusted” elicit moderate levels of avoidance and approach behaviors.

Table 6 – Disgust
Desire to Engage in Avoidance Behaviors across Emotion Conditions on 1-5 scale, with 5 indicating greater desire

A table showing disgust-related item – Feel like throwing up data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Disgust-related item – Feel like throwing up Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 2.19 3.61 3.52 3.97 3.96
(SD) (1.42) (1.63) (1.63) (1.21) (1.24)

 

A table showing disgust-related item – “Want to avoid something” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Disgust-related item – Want to Avoid Something Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 2.81 3.61 3.52 3.97 3.96
(SD) (1.24) (1.28) (1.34) (1.07) (1.24)

 

A table showing disgust-related item – “Move away from something” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Disgust-related item – Move Away from Something Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 3.59 3.66 3.30 3.41 3.76
(SD) (1.31) (1.26) (1.35) (1.43) (1.27)

 

 

A table showing disgust-related item – “Turn away from something or someone” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Disgust-related item – Turn away from something or someone Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 3.81 3.91 3.22 4.17 3.88
(SD) (1.24) (1.28) (1.45) (1.23) (1.30)

 

Table 6 – Anger
Desire to Engage in Approach Behaviors across Emotion Conditions on 1-5 scale, with 5 indicating greater desire

A table showing anger-related item – “Feel like hitting someone” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Anger-related item – Feel like hitting someone Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 3.48 2.94 3.52 2.93 1.64
(SD) (1.53) (1.61) (1.67) (1.65) (1.11)

 

A table showing anger-related item – “Feel like lashing out” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Anger-related item – Feel like lashing out Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 3.93 3.41 3.56 3.48 2.24
(SD) (1.44) (1.43) (1.37) (1.38) (1.36)

 

A table showing anger-related item – “Want to get back at someone” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Anger-related item – Want to get back at someone Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 3.63 3.16 3.15 2.79 1.96
(SD) (1.47) (1.61) (1.56) (1.80) (1.40)

 

A table showing anger-related item – “Want to overcome some obstacle” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Anger-related item – Want to overcome some obstacle Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 3.67 3.63 3.19 3.10 1.96
(SD) (1.27) (1.34) (1.64) (1.52) (1.21)

 

A table showing anger-related item – “Strike out at someone” data for emotion trigger words anger, disgust, disgusted, repulsed, grossed out
Anger-related item – Strike out at someone Anger (n = 27) Disgust (n = 32) Disgusted (n = 27) Repulsed (n = 29) Grossed Out (n = 25)
M 2.48 2.91 3.07 2.62 1.48
(SD) (1.22) (1.63) (1.41) (1.76) (.87)

Reproduced from “The theoretical versus the lay meaning of disgust: Implications for emotion research,” by R.L. Nabi, 2002, Cognition & Emotion16(5), p. 701. (https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930143000437). Copyright 2002 by Psychology Press.

 

Nabi concludes that the word the English language uses for disgust is actually a word that conveys emotions of both disgust and anger.  She believes moral violations by others actually elicit the emotion anger.

In the following sections, we will discuss evidence for both the basic emotion and social constructivist perspective of disgust.

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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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