The Negative Side of Disgust

Roger Giner-Sorolla, School of Psychology, University of Kent & Lasana T. Harris, Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University dr-roger-giner-sorolla medium_Lasana_Harris_Close

Psychologists are often asked to provide prescriptive as well as descriptive views on emotions: whether, say, shame is generally destructive and unfair, or potentially useful and justifiable (e.g., Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Teroni & Deonna, 2008). Disgust is another such controversial emotion. We will review here evidence that, while negative feelings are useful means for tracking objectionable behaviors, disgust may be less appropriate than other alternatives such as moral anger.

Undesirable elicitors and consequences of disgust

In the debate between Martha Nussbaum and Dan Kahan over the admissibility of disgust as a part of liberal jurisprudence (e.g. Nussbaum, 1999; Kahan, 1999; Nussbaum, 2004), Nussbaum disqualifies disgust on a number of grounds. There is psychological evidence supporting each of these. First of all, it is well established that while anger’s action tendency is one of hostile approach, disgust leads to avoidance and cleansing behaviors (e.g., Roseman, Spindel & Jose, 1996; van Overveld, de Jong & Peters, 2010; Fontaine, Scherer & Soriano, 2013). These do not seem to facilitate respect for human dignity and rights. Rather, they call to mind shunning punishments, and in a more sinister turn of phrase, “cleansing” society of undesirables. The hostility in anger at least is compatible with reproach and reform, while disgust seems to lead either to avoidance of the problem, or to inhumane punishment.

Disgust has also been seen as an emotion that is relatively insensitive to rational assessments of context; for example, Rozin, Millman & Nemeroff (1986) reported people’s reluctance to ingest chocolate merely shaped like dog droppings. In the moral domain, however, this characteristic of disgust can lead people to ignore morally relevant aspects of the action being judged, such as whether it was harmful or whether it was performed intentionally. Studies in moral judgment (Gutierrez & Giner-Sorolla, 2007; Giner-Sorolla, Caswell, Bosson & Hettinger, 2012; Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2011a) show that anger, versus disgust, responds more strongly to experimental manipulations of the intentional nature of a wrong act and whether it harmed anyone.

For example, Russell and Giner-Sorolla (2011a) manipulated whether potentially immoral acts involving cloning (e.g. eating one’s own cloned flesh, serving cloned meat to guests without telling them what it is) were presented as intentional, or accidental due to another person’s error. In that study, when statistically controlling for anger, disgust did not discriminate between intentional and accidental wrongs, while anger controlling for disgust did.

Additionally, disgust appears to be especially hard to justify with supporting reasons and to change when mitigating circumstances emerge. Russell and Giner-Sorolla (2011b) demonstrated that people had a harder time coming up with reasons for why they felt disgust, as opposed to anger, toward sexually stigmatized groups, beyond simple evaluative restatements (e.g., “because they’re evil”; see also the “moral dumbfounding” in Björklund, Haidt, & Murphy, 2000, which was mainly shown for disgusting moral violations involving sex or the body).

Furthermore, other research (Russell & Giner-Sorolla, 2011c) has shown that when people were asked to re-evaluate a stated moral violation (such as kicking a dog, or eating a dog that had been killed by a car) in the presence of various mitigating circumstances they changed their anger reactions toward the violation, but not their disgust reactions. It is unlikely that decisions relying on disgust are easily changed by new evidence, further showing that disgust is estranged from rational moral judgment.

Disgust, dehumanization, and social status

When disgust is directed at humans, it can motivate a dehumanized perception-the inability to see the person as still human, that is, as having a human mind (Harris & Fiske, 2009). Social psychological and social neuroscience data document these psychological and neural findings (Harris & Fiske, 2006), which resonate with philosophical theory (Descartes, 1637). Descartes postulated ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am), suggesting the mind and body are separable entities. Though a lot of what Descartes postulated about the brain was incorrect, this Cartesian Dualist perspective seems to have an intuitive appeal among lay people, who can attribute greater and lesser degrees of “mind” to other humans.

One example is found within person perception research. People reduce their mental state inferences—ideas about the content of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and disposition—when seeing members of a dehumanized group (Harris & Fiske, 2011). Mental state inferences occur spontaneously when viewing other people (Fiske, 2013), for instance, “that guy is well-dressed, so he must be meticulous”. When seeing “disgusting” individuals, however, these inferences are not made. As a result, the way we think about “disgusting” people appears to be similar to the way we think about objects, animals, and other things that do not have minds like ours. Currently, the causal relationship between disgust and dehumanized perception remains unknown, and recent evidence is now beginning to test the impact of this psychological phenomenon on actual, real world behavior (Capestany & Harris, 2014). For instance, people may engage dehumanized perceptions to reduce feelings of helplessness, despair, compassion, and empathy in themselves (Cameron & Payne, 2011), or simply to ensure their economic well-being in contexts where people’s physical, not mental abilities are more predictive of winning money (Harris, Lee, Capestany, & Cohen, 2014). Specifically, people behave in a more rational, profit-maximizing manner when they first dehumanize other people in an economic context.

Therefore, the psychological impact of disgust through dehumanized perception is not simply limited to sanctioning extreme acts of violence and cruelty (cf. Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006). This presents an additional challenge to disgust in the light of modern values of justice, which insist on recognizing the humanity of social offenders. Though other emotions are certainly involved in such instances of human cruelty as genocide, torture, slavery, murder, rape, child abuse, human warfare, poverty, and neglect, disgust has one feature that explains why it may fit these contexts so readily: the role of hierarchy and status. Disgust may allow people to quickly and easily distinguish features of hierarchy, including whether someone is of low social status, and thus undeserving of social interaction.

People report disgust and contempt (though less so) to homeless people and drug addicts, social groups at the bottom of the American social hierarchy. They rate them as low on warmth and competence related traits, the two primary dimensions of person perception. All other people receive high ratings on at least one trait (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). These results replicate across cultures (Cuddy et al., 2009). Indeed, it has been argued that disgust is an inherently hierarchical emotion (Brandt & Reyna, 2011), felt by higher status people toward lower status people. Commentators in the humanities have often noted that beliefs about smell, animality, and other disgusting metaphors are used to reinforce the social stigma of oppressed classes and groups (Orwell, 1937/1986; Smith, 2006).

In sum, like any emotion, disgust motivates behavior (Darwin, 1872). Specifically, disgust motivates avoidance of potentially harmful objects and agents to help satisfy a basic need for survival (Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Oaten, Case & Stevenson, 2009). But this very same functional quality of disgust also causes problems for our egalitarian values when it is applied to groups and persons. Not only is the physiological-phenomenological experience of disgust powerfully unpleasant, it also leads people to make inflexible moral judgments, to shun other people as less than human on a very basic level, and supports social hierarchies with prejudices as seemingly self-evident as the prejudice humans hold against rats, lice and dung. While it may be adaptive to hold strong, inflexible, avoidant attitudes towards things that can make us sick, these attitudes, directed at other people, conflict with the values of social justice.


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