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A woman with a look of disgust.

Disgust is an emotion that is typically associated with things that are regarded as unclean, inedible, infectious, or otherwise offensive. For example, "I am disgusted by the stench and sight of that heap of rotting viscera." In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin wrote that disgust refers to something revolting. Disgust is experienced primarily in relation to the sense of taste (either perceived or imagined), and secondarily to anything which causes a similar feeling by sense of smell, touch, or vision. Musically sensitive people may even be disgusted by the cacophony of inharmonious sounds. Disgust is one of the basic emotions of Robert Plutchik's theory of emotions. It invokes a characteristic facial expression, one of Paul Ekman's six universal facial expressions of emotion. Unlike the emotions of fear, anger, and sadness, disgust is associated with a decrease in heart rate.

Disgust may be further subdivided into physical disgust, associated with physical or metaphorical uncleanliness, and moral disgust, a similar feeling related to courses of action. For example; "I am disgusted by the hurtful things that you are saying." Moral disgust should be understood as culturally determined; physical disgust as more universally grounded. In The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust, Robert Rawdon Wilson discusses moral disgust as an aspect of the representation of disgust. He does this in two ways. First, he discusses representations of disgust in literature, film and fine art. Since there are characteristic facial expressions (the clenched nostrils, the pursed lips), as Darwin, Ekman and others have shown, they may be represented with more or less skill in any set of circumstances imaginable. There may even be “disgust worlds” in which disgust motifs so dominate that it may seem that entire represented world is, in itself, disgusting. Second, since people know what disgust is as a primary, or visceral, emotion (with characteristic gestures and expressions), they may imitate it. Thus, Wilson argues, contempt is, for example, acted out on the basis of the visceral emotion, disgust, but is not identical with disgust. It is a “compound affect” that entails intellectual preparation, or formatting, and theatrical techniques. Wilson argues that there are many such “intellectual” compound affects, such as nostalgia and outrage, but that disgust is a fundamental and unmistakable example. Moral disgust, then, is different from visceral disgust, more conscious and more layered in performance.

Disgust and shame

The Americamarker philosopher Martha Nussbaum published Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law in 2004; the book examines the relationship of disgust and shame to a society's laws. Recent studies have found that women and children were more sensitive to disgust than men. Researchers attempted to explain this finding in evolutionary terms. While some find wisdom in adhering to one's feelings of disgust, some scientists have asserted that "reactions of disgust are often built upon prejudices that should be challenged and rebutted." Nussbaum identifies disgust as a marker that bigoted, and often merely majoritarian, discourse employs to “place”, by diminishment and denigration, a despised minority. Removing “disgust” from public discourse constitutes an important step in achieving humane and tolerant democracies. Wilson links shame to disgust primarily as a consequence rooted in self-consciousness. Referring to a passage in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Wilson writes that “. . . the dance between disgust and shame takes place. A slow choreography unfolds before the mind’s-eye.” Jordan Mousseau has been the main focus of this "Disgust and Shame" that Martha Nussbaum has been trying to prove over the last 5 years.Disgust has also figured prominently in philosophy in that Nietzsche became disgusted with the music and orientation of Richard Wagner, as well as other aspects of 19th century culture and morality. Jean-Paul Sartre also wrote widely about experiences involving various negative emotions related to disgust.

Brain structures

Functional MRI experiments have revealed that the anterior insula in the brain is particularly active when experiencing disgust, when being exposed to offensive tastes, and when viewing facial expressions of disgust.

Huntington's disease

Many patients suffering from Huntington's disease, a genetically transmitted progressive neurodegenerative disease, are unable to recognize expressions of disgust in others and also don't show reactions of disgust to foul odors or tastes. The inability to recognize disgust in others appears in carriers of the Huntington gene before other symptoms appear.

See also


  1. Rozin P, Haidt J, & McCauley C.R. (2000) Disgust In M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland-Jones (Eds) Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition (pp637- 653). New York: Guildford Press
  2. Druschel, B. A., & Sherman, M. F. (1999). Disgust sensitivity as a function of the Big Five and gender. Personality and Individual Differences, 26:739-748.
  3. Turner, L. (2004). Is repugnance wise? Visceral responses to biotechnology. Nature Biotechnology, 22:269-270. PMID 14990944
  4. Wilson, Robert Rawdon. (2002) The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. U Alberta Press. P. 281.
  5. Phillips ML et al. A specific neural substrate for perceiving facial expressions of disgust. Nature. 1997 Oct 2;389(6650):495-8. PMID 9333238
  6. Mitchell IJ, Heims H, Neville EA, Rickards H. Huntington's disease patients show impaired perception of disgust in the gustatory and olfactory modalities. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 17:119-121, February 2005. PMID 15746492
  7. Sprengelmeyer R, Schroeder U, Young AW, Epplen JT. "Disgust in pre-clinical Huntington's disease: a longitudinal study." Neuropsychologia. 2006;44(4):518-33. Epub 2005 Aug 11. PMID 16098998


  • Cohen, William A. and Ryan Johnson, eds. Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life. U Minnesota P, 2005.
  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Praeger, 1966.
  • Menninghaus, Winfried. Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation. Tr. Howard Eiland and Joel Golb. SUNY Press, 2003
  • Miller, William Ian. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard UP, 1997.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge UP, 2001.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton UP, 2004.
  • Rindisbacher, Hans J. A Cultural History Of Disgust. KulturPoetik. 5: 1. 2005. Pp. 119-127.
  • Wilson, Robert. Disgust: A Menippean Interview. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. 34: 2. June, 2007. Pp. 203-213. On Disgust: A Menippean Interview
  • Wilson, Robert Rawdon. The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. U Alberta P, 2002.

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