What is disgust?


Disgust is one of the seven universal emotions and arises as a feeling of aversion towards something offensive. We can feel disgusted by something we perceive with our physical senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, taste), by the actions or appearances of people, and even by ideas.


Feeling disgust


Disgust contains a range of states with varying intensities from mild dislike to intense loathing. All states of disgust are triggered by the feeling that something is aversive, repulsive and/or toxic.

Source: Atlas of Emotions

Disgust may also alternate with the feeling of anger if the disgusted person is angry about being made to feel disgust.


What disgusts us


The universal trigger for disgust is the feeling that something is offensive, poisonous or contaminating. We can feel disgusted by something we perceive with our physical senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, taste), by the actions and appearances of people, and even by ideas. Some triggers for disgust are universal (such as encountering certain bodily products) whereas other triggers are much more culturally and individually influenced (such as certain types of food).


There is an ongoing debate within the scientific community as to whether certain forms of interpersonal and social disgust (being disgusted by another person’s appearance, actions, ideas or social standing) are learned and culture-specific or whether they exist in some form across all cultures. For example, everyone may have disgust reactions to a “morally tainted” person, but what is considered “morally tainted” might vary across cultures.


Common disgust triggers:

  • Expelled bodily products such as feces, vomit, urine, mucus and blood
  • Certain foods (often from cultures other than our own)
  • Something rotting, diseased or dying       
  • Injuries, surgeries and/or being exposed to bodily insides
  • A person, animal or thing one considers physically ugly 
  • Perceived perversions or actions of other people (such as certain sexual inclinations, torture or servitude)

Development of disgust

Children and adolescents often have a fascination with disgust as do some adults (including finding disgusting things humorous and/or intriguing). For young children, however, disgust doesn’t begin to develop until sometime between the ages of four and eight. Before that emotional development, children experience distaste, the rejection of things that taste bad, but not disgust.


Additional studies have shown that kids aren’t bothered by some of the things that adults find disgusting (e.g., eating a bar of chocolate shaped like dog feces). One theory is that when we are younger, we do not yet have the cognitive capacity necessary for certain forms of learned disgust.


Recognizing disgust


Facial expression of disgust

The most easily recognizable and obvious sign of disgust is the wrinkling of the nose.


Vocal expressions of disgust

Common vocal expressions are making a “yuck” or “ew” sound, choking, and gagging.


Physical sensations of disgust

Common sensations include revulsion in the mouth, throat, and/or stomach, and nausea, or physical repulsion (i.e., vomiting).


Posture of disgust

Disgust often leads to physically turning the head or body away from the source of disgust. When disgust leads to nausea, reactions also include covering the nose/mouth and hunching over.


The function of disgust


The universal function of disgust is to get away from, block off, or eliminate something offensive, toxic or contaminating.


Benefits of disgust

One evolutionary benefit of disgust is to keep us away from or remove things potentially dangerous or damaging to keep us safe and healthy (e.g., not eating something putrid, staying away from open sores to avoid catching an infection or disease, avoiding interactions with “morally tainted” people).


Dangers of disgust

While there are noted benefits to feeling disgust, it can also be dangerous. Unfortunately, most societies teach the avoidance of certain groups of people deemed physically or morally disgusting and, thus, can be a driving force in dehumanizing and degrading others.


Reacting to disgust

While witnessing “gross” bodily functions (bleeding, defecating, etc.) in others often evokes disgust, this reaction is suspended when it is someone with whom we are close. Intimacy lowers the threshold for what we consider disgusting. So, while we still may feel some degree of disgust, it is reduced enough that we are able to help those we care about. Now, rather than try to get away, we are called to reduce the suffering of the loved one (e.g., changing a baby's diaper or taking care of a sick family member). This suspension of disgust establishes intimacy and may even strengthen love and community.


Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions, the best-seller Emotions Revealed.


Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.