When and why do bodies elicit disgust?

July 13th Room 1
Joshua Tybur (VU Amsterdam)

Human bodies often elicit disgust. The current symposium showcases recent work advancing our understanding of such disgust. Giner-Sorolla begins by forwarding our understanding of the role of bodily norms in disgust, in one study comparing disgust toward bodily modifications versus non-normative fashions and, in another study, adding a comparison with disgust toward contortionists, whose bodies are configured in unusual ways (but not modified). Russell then explores the societal implications of a specific elicitor of bodily disgust: breastfeeding. She finds that both disgust and shame (but not guilt) are related to attitudes toward breastfeeding, and she proposes routes to decreasing stigmas against breastfeeding. Tybur addresses another issue related to bodily disgust: the fact that people are more strongly disgusted by potentially infectious contact with some people’s bodies than with other people’s bodies. He presents evidence suggesting that avoiding such contact is only weakly related to disgust sensitivity, and is instead strongly tied to the degree to which an individual values another’s welfare. The final two talks focus on disgust sensitivity: specifically, the information processing underlying the trait and the detection of the trait in others. Using eye-tracking, Wagemans tests whether disgust sensitivity relates to three attentional biases toward disgust-eliciting stimuli: vigilance, maintenance, and avoidance. Findings suggest that more disgust sensitive individuals avoid attending to disgust-eliciting stimuli. Finally, Karinen tests whether individuals can detect the disgust sensitivity of other people. Using a large self-other agreement study, she finds that people can assess other people’s disgust sensitivity with a high degree of accuracy.

Attentional biases associated with individual differences in disgust sensitivity: An eye tracking study 

Fieke M. A. Wagemans, Willem W. A. Sleegers, Mark J. Brandt & Marcel Zeelenberg

Individual differences in disgust sensitivity relate to a wide variety of psychological constructs (e.g., moral decision-making, person perception) and are thought to play a role in the onset and maintenance of several psychopathological disorders (e.g., anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder). Despite its importance, research has yet to uncover the basic information processing strategies that are associated with individual differences in disgust sensitivity. We therefore aim to provide more insight into these processes by examining three attentional biases (vigilance, maintenance, and avoidance) for disgust stimuli as a function of disgust sensitivity. In a first exploratory study, 135 participants engaged in a free viewing task in which they were presented with 10 grids of 4 pictures: 1 disgusting, 1 positive, and 2 neutral pictures. We find that individuals high, versus low, in disgust sensitivity spend less time (per visit and in total) looking at disgust pictures, supporting an avoidance hypothesis. In a second, preregistered, study (N = 149), we extended our design with negative, but not disgusting, pictures. We again find strong evidence for an avoidance hypothesis, supporting the idea that more disgust sensitive individuals have a more sensitive pathogen threat alert system. Interestingly though, our second study also revealed that disgust sensitive individuals show a similar attentional avoidance bias for other negative stimuli. Disgust sensitivity might thus be indicative of a more general defensive strategy than previously thought.

Disgust, Shame and Breastfeeding 

Pascale Sophie Russell, Michele Birtel, Kathryn Hart & Debbie M. Smith

Bodily acts, behaviors that involve the body, such as breastfeeding, are believed to be linked with both feeling shame, i.e., feeling that you have done wrong, and disgust, i.e., feeling that someone else has done wrong (Nussbaum, 2004). The aim of the current research was to examine how emotions and norms (moral and social) impact breastfeeding attitudes, behaviors, as well as stigma. We collected data from a general population sample, as well as mothers with children under 2 years of age. Results showed disgust and shame were unique predictors of breastfeeding attitudes, thus, we found that higher levels of disgust and shame are associated with more negative breastfeeding attitudes, for both the general public and mothers. In particular, the results suggest it is important to target feelings of disgust in order to improve breastfeeding rates because people are more likely to perceive the benefits of breastfeeding as they experience less disgust, as revealed by our mediation analyses. Our results also affirmed the idea that social support and self-esteem act as buffers for internalized stigma, whilst perceived discrimination increases the likelihood of internalized stigma because of one’s feeding choice. Feelings of shame, but not guilt, played a key role in explaining these relationships. Therefore, the current results demonstrate that disgust and shame may be especially important in breastfeeding perceptions, behaviours and stigma.

Pathogen disgust and the benefits of interpersonal contact 

Joshua Tybur & Tom Kupfer

Many disgust elicitors, including bodily wastes, spoiled foods, and dead bodies, connote some risk of infection. But not all infection risks elicit disgust. Indeed, people often happily engage in behaviors that increase their risk of infection, such as close contact with offspring (especially infants), sexual contact with romantic partners, and cooperative contact in exchange relationships. These observations are consistent with information processing models suggesting that disgust is outputted based on not only assessments of pathogen risk, but also on contact benefits. The current study provides a critical test of such a model. Five hundred four participants were randomly assigned to think of an individual belonging to one of four relationship categories: (1) romantic partner; (2) closest friend; (3) acquaintance; or (4) a disliked other. They were then asked how comfortable they were with 10 examples of potentially infectious contact with the target (e.g., Using the target’s deodorant stick on yourself; Touching a handkerchief that the target used to blow his or her nose). Finally, they were also asked to complete a task assessing their value that they place on their relationship with the target – a welfare tradeoff ratio task. Comfort with infectious contact was strongly related to target relationship value, r = .68, p < .001. The effect of target relationship value remained even after controlling for target category (e.g., romantic partner versus acquaintance), β = .21, p < .001. In sum, results suggest that disgust toward pathogen cues varies markedly depending on the source of those pathogens.

Is my disgust showing? Self-other agreement in disgust sensitivity 

Annika Karinen, Joshua Tybur & Reinout de Vries

People vary in how much disgust they feel when they see vomit on the pavement, receive unwanted sexual attention, or read about a heinous crime in a newspaper. But to what extent are these reactions visible to others, and do we care about each other’s disgust? Although variation in pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust sensitivity relates to personality and to social and political variables – such as political conservatism, xenophobia, and moral judgment – it is not yet known whether disgust sensitivity is a visible trait. We therefore examined self-other agreement (SOA) in pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust sensitivity – a technique that allows for estimates of trait visibility. Romantic partners (N=290), friends (N=212) and acquaintances (N=140) rated each other on pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust sensitivity and the HEXACO personality dimensions. The dyad members’ ratings were correlated to determine the level of SOA. We found significant SOA in all domains of disgust sensitivity in all relationship categories, except in moral disgust sensitivity in the acquaintance category. Furthermore, self-other agreement in disgust sensitivity was independent of personality perceptions – that is, people did not merely infer the other dyad member’s disgust sensitivity from their personality. Contrary to past research suggesting that affective traits are less visible than personality traits, our results suggest that trait-level disgust is visible to similar extent as personality. Further, the visibility of disgust sensitivity may make it a relevant trait for friend or partner selection in real-world contexts.

What kinds of unusual body presentations specifically elicit social disgust? 

John Sabo

People who present their bodies unusually often elicit disgust, an emotion that facilitates social stigma and discrimination. We tested hypotheses derived from three relevant theories: (1) disgust serves a specific disease-protection function that focuses on breaches of the bodily envelope (e.g., piercings, skin art); (2) disgust serves a social norm protection function that responds to any unusual self-presentation; and (3) disgust serves a body-specific norm protection function that reacts to unusual bodies with or without skin breach. We ran two studies with British undergraduates, each time pre-testing classes of picture stimuli to be equally negative and unusual. Study 1 found that disgust (vs. anger and fear) responded to body modifications more so than weird fashions, evidence against mere social norm protection. Study 2 added contortionist pictures (bodily abnormal, no skin breach) and measured perceived morality. Contortionists were just as disgusting as body modifications, supporting the body-specific theory of disgust over the body-envelope theory, but bodily modifications were seen as more immoral than the other two types, suggesting that disease risk and/or permanent self-harm from body envelope breaches may be a factor in specifically moral disgust towards unusual bodies.