Discover the roots of disgust and how physical and moral disgust impact your life.
Disgust has been identified as one of the universal emotions shared by all people (Rozin & Fallon, 1987). It is characterized as feelings of revulsion, of wanting to get away from the offensive object. Your feelings of disgust stop you from eating spoiled food and ensure that you stay away from excrement and other potential sources of disease and infection.
But we don’t only feel disgusted in response to physical objects with the potential to make us sick. We often refer to behaviors and actions that we deeply dislike as disgusting. An online search of recent news headlines that feature the word disgusting revealed that racism, police brutality, political maneuvering, opposing media outlets, and stigma about mental health, among other things, were all labeled as disgusting. Do these various actions and ideas all elicit the same visceral feeling that you get when you smell vomit? Or is disgust used in such headlines as a metaphor?
The disgust felt in response to moral transgressions may have evolved from the more basic disgust felt in response to physically offensive objects. Paul Rozin, a pioneering researcher in the psychology of disgust, puts it this way: Disgust has evolved from protecting the body to protecting the soul and the social order.
Research has found, time and again, that feelings of disgust are often illogical. For example, when presented with two pieces of fudge that you know are edible, tasty, not harmful, and identical to one another in every way except that one is shaped to look like dog feces, you are unlikely to ever choose the feces-shaped fudge. Similarly, you’re unlikely to drink orange juice that has been in contact with a sterilized dead cockroach or to drink apple juice from a clean and unused bedpan. In all these situations, the feelings of disgust induced by vermin, excrement, or urine contaminate the food items, even if you know that the items are perfectly safe and tasty (Haidt et al., 1994).
Similarly, exposure to disgusting imagery (e.g., “the worst toilet in Scotland” scene from the movie Trainspotting), reduces the perceived value of nearby items (Lerner et al., 2016). Feelings of disgust can contaminate nearby objects, even when those objects are in no way related to the disgust that you are feeling. Advertising rarely employs disgusting imagery. Other negative emotions, like fear and anger, may drive sales in some situations. However, if potential customers feel disgusted when they see your product, even if your product is the solution to a disgusting problem, they’ll probably value your product less.
The contaminating power of disgust is enduring. Would you eat a bowl of your favorite soup after it had been stirred with a “used but thoroughly cleaned” fly swatter? Most people would not. The fly swatter, having been contaminated by exposure to a disgusting squished insect, is forever disgusting.
At a primitive level, emotions drive you to behave in ways that will ensure your survival. For example, fear drives you to escape a dangerous situation. Disgust drives nausea, vomiting, and other behaviors that either prevent things from entering your mouth or remove things that have already entered your mouth. This suggests that disgust has origins in eating, food, and ingestion.
From these origins, disgust has evolved. You can also be disgusted by sexual practices, bad hygiene, and reminders of death or injury. Moreover, you can also feel disgusted by contact with undesirable others and by moral offenses (Tybur et al., 2012).
Our sense of disgust expanded from the physical to the moral as we became an increasingly social species (Curtis, 2011). Perhaps because pathogens and parasites transmit within and across groups of people, the emotion of disgust is strongly involved in prejudice, xenophobia, and stigmatization (Olatunji & Sawchuck, 2005).
Can Disgust Feel Pleasurable?
Interestingly, feelings of disgust can sometimes be experienced as pleasurable, in a phenomenon called benign masochism (Rozin et al., 2013). The popularity of dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, better known as Dr. Pimple Popper, attests to the appeal that disgusting experiences can have. The Dr. Pimple Popper YouTube channel features close-up videos of oozing blackheads and cyst removals and has over 7 million subscribers. The experience of watching a minor but very real medical procedure causes you to feel disgusted without having to face any real threat. Our ability to feel that we can withstand such menaces produces a gratifying sense of mastery.
As you can see, disgust is a powerful emotion. Disgust keeps you from eating spoiled food and from interacting with objects that may contain disease-causing pathogens. However, this beneficial protective system can become co-opted against people who are different from us.
Discover how to practice radical acceptance to improve your mental health.
There is a famous saying that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It suggests that pain is an inevitable part of life; suffering, however, arises from not accepting the pain. What makes this quote helpful is that it not only discerns between pain and suffering, two concepts we often use interchangeably, but it also recognizes that we have power in the face of challenges. We have the power to accept.
Radical acceptance is accepting what is not under your control and embracing what is happening now in a non-judgmental way. When you wholeheartedly and radically accept emotional or physical pain, it can reduce suffering.
Marsha Linehan, a leading psychologist who introduced the idea of radical acceptance into Western societies, sums it up: “Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging”. It is a “complete and total openness to the facts of reality as they are, without throwing a tantrum and growing angry.” (2021; p. 503).
Therapies that include radical acceptance are designed to stop the clients from having reactive behaviors and encourage them to respond to challenging situations skillfully. For example, it has been shown that these therapies can reduce substance use and relapse (Bowen et al., 2012), anxiety (Roemer et al., 2008), suicidality (DeCou et al., 2019), and chronic pain (Hann & McCracken, 2014). However, radical acceptance can be learned and practiced outside of therapy. In fact, this strategy can help people accept themselves wholeheartedly, increase well-being (Kotsu et al., 2018), and have positive weight loss benefits (Lillis et al., 2016).
How to Practice Radical Acceptance
Here, you can learn more about steps you can take to develop radical acceptance skills (Taitz 2021).
1. Acknowledge the Present.
The most important part is to be mindful of your situation, paying attention to it in a non-judgmental way. However, this does not mean you should accept abusive or manipulative behavior; it just means accepting the reality, whether you like it or not.
2. Ask yourself if you can control or change the situation.
If you can’t control what happens, why are you getting angry? It can be painful to acknowledge that you’re not always in control, but it can also be freeing.
3. Let go of judgment.
Practicing radical acceptance means letting go of judgment and experiencing things as they are. You can improve this mindfulness skill by practicing meditation and being present in the moment.
4. Let the past be in the past.
Remind yourself that the past cannot be changed. The past, no matter if good or bad, happened.
This may sound simple, but it can be extremely effective. Whenever you are fighting reality, your body may get tense in parts such as the shoulders, face, or stomach. So, take deep breaths for a few moments and focus on them. When you practice watching your breath, you may ground yourself to the present moment and become more relaxed.
6. Be patient.
Choose to practice radical acceptance daily and understand that it takes time to master it.
Practice accepting situations so that when bigger challenges come along, you’ll have already developed these skills.
Radical acceptance can be a useful skill for improving personal well-being and interpersonal relationships. Hopefully, the information provided here gives you some ideas for how to practice it in your life.
Pamela (Pami) Parker currently serves as a holistic practitioner, coach and teacher. Her intention is to be a compassionate guide to those who choose to experience a healthier, happier and more peaceful way of life.