• Category 1: In-Class Active Learning
  • Chapter Objective 6:
    • Discuss the culture-specific and culturally universal aspects of emotional expression, and describe the effects of facial expressions on emotional experience.
  • Purpose: Introduces a discussion on digust
  • Handout 11–15
  • In-Class: 10-15 minutes


The Disgust Scale


You can extend the text discussion of specific emotions with a consideration of the universal emotion of disgust. Introduce the topic with Handout 11–15, the Disgust Scale, designed by Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin. To score, students should add up their “false” responses to statements 2, 9, and 13 and their “true” responses to the remaining items numbered from 1 to 16. Next, they should add up all their ratings on questions 17–32 and divide that total by 2. Finally, scores for parts one and two should be totaled. Scores can range from 0 to 32, with higher scores reflecting greater disgust sensitivity. Mean scores for men and women in American adult samples have been 14 and 18, respectively. The scale recognizes that disgust reflects repulsion toward certain objects, behaviors, and people. Disgust has its own unique facial expression in which the nose wrinkles with a constriction of the nostrils, and the mouth opens with the tongue pushed forward as if to force the offending substance out. Interest in the study of disgust has grown in popularity as brain-imaging research has uncovered that certain parts of the brain are activated when people are disgusted.  Investigators have also made the interesting discovery that people with Huntington’s disease and those who carry its gene cannot recognize the typical facial expressions associated with disgust.


Darwin recognized that many different things elicit disgust and that it is an emotion shared by radically diverse cultures. However, what people consider disgusting can vary tremendously. From an evolutionary perspective, disgust seems, first of all, to be a case of survival by aversion. It’s a fear of incorporating an aversive substance into one’s body. Eating is the most direct way of incorporating such a substance and, as Steven Pinker notes, disgust gets codified in food taboos everywhere. American pilots during World
War II went hungry rather than eat the toads and bugs that they had been taught were perfectly safe. Pinker cites the disgusting yet delightful camp song (sung to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare”) some of your students may be familiar with:

Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts,

Mutilated monkey meat,

Concentrated chicken feet,

Jars and jars of petrified porpoise pus,

And me without my spoon!

Paul Rozin’s taste test demonstrates how the disgust response is very different from simple rejection of unpleasant tastes, smells, and sights. To illustrate, consider your own responses to his test. Which of the following glasses of water would you drink: one that contains an odorless, harmless, chemical that is terribly bitter, one that is laced with a lethal dose of arsenic, or one that is sterile and contains only pure water but previously held a sample of dog feces. “Disgust,” explains Rozin, “involves rejection based not on sensory properties but on knowledge of the nature of something.” And it is about something other than fear of injury or sickness. The second glass containing poison elicits a different, less violent reaction than knowing what used to be in the third. Allison Leach concludes, “If fear is our response to real or perceived harm to our physical selves, disgust is, in a sense, the reaction to actual or imagined threats to our souls.”


Perhaps this explains how disgust can be irrational. We find a sterilized cockroach just as revolting as one fresh from the cupboard. Even if it is briefly dunked into a beverage, we will refuse to drink it. People won’t eat soup if it is served in a brand-new bedpan nor if they know it has been stirred with a new comb or fly-swatter. Hospital kitchens know they can stop employee theft of juice by storing it in brand-new urine bottles. People will not eat fudge baked in the shape of dog feces or hold rubber vomit between their lips. We won’t even sip from a bowl of soup into which we ourselves have just spat.


Cultural differences in what people find disgusting suggest that it is learned. People in the United States often do not remove their shoes when walking into a house. In Japan, people would consider it disgusting to bring dirt from the outside world into their house. Children younger than 2 put anything in their mouths. Distaste is centered solely on foods that are bitter or sour. At some point between ages 4 and 8, Rozin suggests, we develop an acquired sense of disgust that is different from an innate sense of distaste. Some researchers have suggested that the process of toilet training may be the origin of disgust. The signals, particularly the facial expressions of the parents, in the presence of the child’s feces convey their repugnance and offensiveness.


Some research has involved a search for “core disgust.” Rozin and April Fallon have identified three criteria for membership in the “core disgust club.” It must be something you could eat, something that has or had a life of its own, and something that has the power to make other things disgusting. “Disgust starts with food,” argues Jonathan Haidt, “and then moves on to other things, sex being just one of them.” Disgusting things are most likely to be, or are perceived to be, of animal origin, whether it is the animal itself or one of its body products. Finally, objects deemed offensive must be capable of “contaminating” other objects. Rozin has argued that disgust has shifted from a reaction to avoid bodily harm to one that wards off harm to the soul.  Disgust has evolved from an instinctual distaste reflex to a culturally acquired emotion elicited by interpersonal and moral events.


Research using the Disgust Scale finds that scores correlate positively with death fear and negatively with thrill-seeking. Interestingly, scores relate positively to neuroticism but negatively with psychoticism. Rozin has also reported the surprising finding that ability to identify expressions of disgust is impaired in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Given that OCD patients are often obsessed with cleanliness, one might expect just the opposite.


Dittmann, M. (2003, October). Ewwww, gross! Monitor on Psychology, 32–33.

Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16, 701–713.

Leach, A. (1998, February). The mystery of disgust. Psychology Today, 40–45, 68–71, 74.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.