Traditionally as an adaptive function, disgust has served for disease avoidance. In other words: to keep us healthy and to keep us from getting ill. Our feeling of disgust works incredibly well for us to tell us to avoid, for example, faeces, rotting meat, or parasitic infected food.
If we have a “disgust” response to something, typically it’s associated with fear. However, fear and disgust are very separate and unique emotional functions within the limbic system and they definitely result in different facial expressions. For example if you’re experiencing fear, your eyes might go wide, and your heart rate may either increase or decrease. Disgust on the other hand may result in a bit of a lip curl, or a feeling in the pit of your stomach that says “don’t go near that or you might get ill!”.
If the traditional evolutionary function of disgust is to keep us healthy, why, in 2017, do we use the term “disgust” to describe people? How many times have you described someone as “disgusting”? We often describe people who over-indulge in perceived unhealthy habits as “disgusting”. Jake discusses why this may be the case, and uses two main examples of smoking and obesity to explain disgust, and discusses why we may be unfairly and unnecessarily shunning “disgusting” people from our lives.
New research has emerged that shows that disgust actually plays a role in psychological illnesses, too; namely, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. This is largely to do with the avoidance of something that’s perceived to be unhealthy to the extreme that it causes significant distress in a person’s life.
Jake connects all of these points in this podcast episode; touching on the psychological illnesses of anxiety and OCD that may find their roots in “disgust”; discussing why we may de-humanise people, labelling them as “disgusting”; and pointing out the dangers of creating this binary system of thinking to judge people based on what we perceive as unhealthy.
Link to study: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1583/3478