We all feel disgust but why do some of us turn it on ourselves?

March 30, 2015 by Jane Simpson And Philip Powell, The Conversation
Yuck! Credit: Russell Neches, CC BY

Disgust is a universal emotion – we all get disgusted by things, just as we all experience other "basic" emotions, such as happiness and sadness. Disgust has many functions. It protects us from products that might cause us harm (food that has gone off), it can give us a moral compass (when we see someone being treated unfairly) and it keeps us away from things that remind us of our animal nature (dead bodies).

While there can be some subtle differences in what triggers a reaction for the same person in different contexts or in people who differ across gender and nationality, everyone across the globe shows the same characteristic facial response to something they find disgusting.

In fact the closed mouth, wrinkled nose and narrowing of the eyes associated with disgust is the perfect way to symbolise its core message: that revolts me, keep it away from me.

The 'revolting self'

Disgust is one of a number of discrete (core) emotions that include joy, rage, surprise, fear, and shame. And like other emotions, disgust can be focused inwards – on the physical and psychological aspects of the self.But self-disgust is a relatively new area for psychological research and is being seen as increasingly relevant in helping us better understand a whole range of health behaviours, societal responses and our own emotional reactions to events and other people.

The consequences of "self-disgust" usually serve less of a function than disgust for outside stimuli. So what makes self-disgust different from other negative emotions and feeling states such as shame, guilt or self-loathing? And what is the benefit of considering self-disgust directly?

You’re probably disgusted before you know what it is: kitten sick. Credit: mahalie stackpole, CC BY-SA

Self-disgust differs from other negative feelings that people have about themselves in a number of ways. While self-disgust is likely to happen alongside other self-directed issues such as shame, unique features include feelings of revulsion, for example when looking in the mirror, contamination and magical rather than reasoned thinking. These, taken with other characteristics, such as its particular cognitive-affective content, suggest an emotional experience that is different to shame (related to hierarchical submission and diminished social rank).

Disgust is not about just "not liking" aspects of yourself – the depth of the emotion can mean you can't even look at yourself without being overwhelmed with revulsion. The feeling that you are disgusting also means that you are potentially toxic to others – so people can become isolated as they do not wish to "infect" and "contaminate" others with their own perceived "disgustingness".

Often, the aspects of themselves that people are disgusted with (whether physical or psychological) are connected to a perceived violation of the physical body or its purity, such as inappropriate sexual contact or issues with appearance, which reflects the evolutionary origins of disgust.

Self-disgust needs tailored therapy

As with many that people can experience, the origins of self-disgust are likely to lie in childhood, when people are learning what things are repulsive in their environment and are vulnerable to disgust reactions and disgust-based criticism from others. However, self-disgust can emerge at any time, and particularly in response to sudden, dramatic changes in the self, for example following trauma such as a sexual assault.

More than a dislike. Credit: San Sharma, CC BY-SA

Understanding self-disgust also has practical and clinical implications. For example, self-disgust has been shown to be a predictive factor for many people with depression and if it is not addressed in therapy then therapeutic outcomes are unlikely to be positive or sustainable.

It has also been shown to be a factor in other , such as eating and personality disorders, and in making people avoid certain behaviours that would be of benefit – such as having .

In a collection of essays in a book we've published on the subject, researchers argue that unless the potency of this emotional state is acknowledged then either therapeutic attempts to help people with serious mental health problems or health interventions aimed at preventing serious illnesses are not going to be successful.

One of the things we have noticed when delivering more cognitive behavioural-based therapies is that, although there is an interest in feelings and emotions, for some clients the strength of their feelings of self-disgust means this needs to be the initial focus for the therapy, rather than cognitions or behaviours, otherwise the therapy doesn't work.

So while most disgust research has assumed the offending stimuli to be external in origin, from clinical and empirical observation we know that this just isn't the case. The "revolting self" has massive implications for individuals' psychological well-being and social lives.

Explore further: Sexual arousal may decrease natural disgust response

Related Stories

Sexual arousal may decrease natural disgust response

September 12, 2012
Sex can be messy, but most people don't seem to mind too much, and new results reported Sep. 12 in the open access journal PLOS ONE suggest that this phenomenon may result from sexual arousal actually dampening humans' natural ...

Disgust leads people to lie and cheat, cleanliness promotes ethical behavior, study shows

November 13, 2014
While feelings of disgust can increase behaviors like lying and cheating, cleanliness can help people return to ethical behavior, according to a recent study by marketing experts at Rice University, Pennsylvania State University ...

From disgust to deceit – a shorter path than you might think

December 18, 2014
Feeling queasy? How about deceitful? New research shows feelings of disgust encourage unethical, self-interested behaviours such as lying to get more money.

Moral outrage may influence jurors' emotions in age of video

December 3, 2013
Think about the last time you were morally outraged. Chances are you felt angry, but did you also feel disgust?

Eyes are windows to the soul—and evolution

March 20, 2014
Why do we become saucer-eyed from fear and squint from disgust?

Recommended for you

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018
The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new ...

Major traumatic injury increases risk of mental health diagnoses, suicide

November 12, 2018
People who experience major injuries requiring hospital admission, such as car crashes and falls, are at substantially increased risk of being admitted to hospital for mental health disorders, found a study in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Nearly one in ten Americans struggles to control sexual urges

November 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

Brain activity pattern may be early sign of schizophrenia

November 8, 2018
Schizophrenia, a brain disorder that produces hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments, usually strikes during adolescence or young adulthood. While some signs can suggest that a person is at high risk for developing ...

Social media use increases depression and loneliness

November 8, 2018
The link between the two has been talked about for years, but a causal connection had never been proven. For the first time, University of Pennsylvania research based on experimental data connects Facebook, Snapchat, and ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Mar 30, 2015
If the kitten vomit doesn't get you, watching the mother cat eat it up (as they do) will. But you would have seen the mother cat eat kittens bowel movements long before then :)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.