Editor’s Column – Understanding Disgust Issue

me with kikiAndrea Scarantino, Department of Philosophy and Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University

Jeopardy question: Which emotion has seen the greatest increase of academic interest over the past 20 years? Tybur and Lieberman have crunched the numbers, and one emotion comes out clearly on top: disgust. Distant second is sadness, followed by fear and shame. Does emotion theory need a shrink? Possibly. But it is hard to resist the fascination of disgust. Perhaps more than any other emotion, disgust has a way of combining the base and the elevated, revealing both our animal side and our aspiration to part ways with it. The base is familiar: we are disgusted by feces, corpses, rotten food, maggots, gory wounds and the like.

At the same time, politicians, betrayal, hypocrisy, and incest disgust us. And all of a sudden we are far removed from the toilet and the trashcan, with all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to happen. The sheer range of disgust elicitors raises a basic puzzle: How did disgust evolve and why does it have so many different elicitors? A second puzzle concerns the expansion of disgust to the moral domain: Should we take seriously our disgust reactions to moral issues, or dismiss them as brutal enforcers of a reactionary morality?

These are the two central puzzles this issue of Emotion Researcher focuses on. We begin with Paul Rozin’s provocative skeptical argument about disgust’s biological origins. Rozin argues that, although disgust currently protects us from pathogens, it does not necessarily follow that it evolved biologically as a pathogen-avoidance mechanism, contrary to what many are now taking for granted. He suggests as an alternative worth considering that disgust evolved culturally, just like fire and penicillin, which also help us avoid pathogens but clearly lack a biological origin.

The next two articles present two of the best worked out theories on how disgust expanded beyond its evolved origin. On one side, Rozin and Haidt defend their influential view that disgust started out as a distaste mechanism and later acquired the functions of protecting us from reminders of our animal origin and from interpersonal and moral pollutants that symbolically contaminate our “sacred” self.

Tybur and Lieberman, on the other hand, argue that disgust started out as a pathogen-avoidance mechanism (inclusive of, but not restricted to, food-borne pathogens) and later acquired the functions of protecting us from sexual contact with reproductively unsuitable individuals and expressing condemnation for certain classes of moral violations.

These first three articles give us a nice overview of the main live options in the debate on the origins and expansion of disgust. We will then switch gears, and focus on disgust’s normative side. Giner-Sorolla and Harris present several reasons for discounting disgust in the moral domain, mentioning for instance its trigger-happy eliciting mechanism, its relative impenetrability to contextual factors and its tendency to lead to “dehumanizing” and “cleansing” reactions.

Clark and Powell, on the other hand, invite us to take a second look at disgust, calling into question some of the empirical evidence for its alleged inflexibility, and pointing out various analogies between disgust and anger, a negative emotion whose role in morality is much less frowned upon.

If disgust leaves you cold, rest assured that there is more to enjoy in this issue of Emotion Researcher. We have a real treat: an audio interview with Paul Ekman, the father of modern day basic emotion theory. I emailed Ekman fifteen questions, and I received an audio file with his responses, which I broke down into bite-sized chunks.

In his interview, Ekman walks us through his storied career, from his beginnings as a student of Tomkins to his most recent collaboration with the Dalai Lama. The interview has some surprising moments, and it will give you a sense of what drives the research agenda of what is arguably the most influential emotion theorist alive.

Our President, Arvid Kappas, reminds us in his ISRE Matters column of a very important date: ISRE’s 30th birthday! It will take place this April, since ISRE was founded in Paris on April 25th-26th of 1984. Arvid’s column contains a link to our founding document (check out the list of founders!) and a call for help documenting the photographic history of ISRE’s conferences.

Last but not least, Giovanna Colombetti, a philosopher from Exeter University, introduces us to her interdisciplinary work on emotions, which applies insights from both philosophical phenomenology and neuroscience to the understanding of the nature of emotions, appraisals and feelings.

A sad final note is that on January 15 of this year psychologist Michael Owren passed away. He was at the time adjunct Professor of Psychology at Emory University. Michael served on the editorial board of Emotion Review since 2009 and his important publications over almost three decades have greatly advanced our understanding of the role of affect in non-linguistic communication. Drew Rendall, a long-time friend and collaborator, has contributed a note to remember Michael’s life and scientific achievements. He will be sorely missed.

Enjoy this issue, and, as always, be in touch with comments, ideas, feedback on the website, information about future conferences, and anything else that strikes your fancy.

PS You can click here for the unformatted PDFs of this issue (not pretty, but some readers asked me if I could post them)

Previous Editor’s Columns

Editor’s Column – Emotional Brain Issue

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