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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Social Origins of Disgust

Joshua Rottman, Jasmine M. DeJesus, and Emily Gerdin
Forthcoming in The Moral Psychology of Disgust (Nina Strohminger and Victor Kumar, Eds.)

Despite being perfectly nutritious, consuming bugs is considered gross in many cultures
(Ruby, Rozin, and Chan 2015). This disgust reaction carries severe consequences. Considering
the negative environmental impacts of the growing consumption of beef, poultry, and fish, the
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has identified eating insects as a sustainable
solution for maintaining protein-rich diets (van Huis et al. 2013), but the prevalent disgust
reaction to this initiative presents a substantial hurdle. What is the function of such an irrational
response, one that may continue to endanger the natural environment? Do people experience
disgust toward insects because of perceived disease risks? Are people reacting to the reminder
that they are eating an animal, in the same way that many people react negatively to eating a
whole fish (with its head and eyes) compared to a fish fillet? We argue that social risks may
instead be motivating this reaction. More broadly, moving beyond the example of entomophagy,
we claim that disgust is much more deeply enmeshed in social and moral considerations than has
been previously acknowledged.

The scientific study of disgust has been predominantly concerned with uncovering its
ultimate adaptive purpose. Theories about the function of disgust abound, ranging from the
abhorrence of disorder and ambiguity (Douglas 1966) to an existential recoiling from reminders
of mortality and animality (Becker 1973; Goldenberg et al. 2001; Nussbaum 2004). However, a
clear front-runner has emerged amongst these diverse proposals: Disgust evolved because it has
helped humans to avoid physical contact with poisons, parasites, and pathogens. In this chapter,
we propose an alternative to the recurrent claim that disgust evolved for the sole purpose of
facilitating the avoidance of toxins and infectious disease (e.g., Chapman and Anderson 2012;
Curtis 2011; Curtis and Biran 2001; Davey 2011; Rozin and Fallon 1987; Rozin, Haidt, and
Fincher 2009; Schaller and Park 2011; Stevenson, Case, and Oaten 2009; Tybur et al. 2013).
Because this paradigmatic idea posits a purely physical (i.e., non-social) reason for the existence
of disgust, we refer to it as the “Physical Origins” hypothesis.

The book chapter is here.