In a previous blog, The Coughing Samaritan, I mentioned the very interesting emotion of disgust. Disgust comes in many forms. You might feel disgusted about a substance, object, or person. I don’t have a dog, and while I can appreciate the draw of canine companionship, I feel fairly intense disgust (combined with admiration) when I watch someone pick up their dog’s business. I loathe seeing the evidence of someone’s spit on the sidewalk. When it snows, I feel particular disgust when I see slushy, dirty snow speckled with road debris on the side of the street. We all have our particular disgust triggers, and the ones that have to do with objects or substances generally involve the threat of contamination or illness. This makes sense evolutionarily. If we never felt disgust at a noxious odour, unusual taste, or suspicious-looking substance, we might be inclined to ingest things that lead to lethal or debilitating illness.
What about disgust toward people? Many of us have probably felt a sense of disgust (which it turns out is a lot like contempt) toward particular people or even groups of people (white supremacists might be a good example). Why might we feel that way? If disgust, like other emotions, serves an important purpose, then what purpose is served by disgust toward other people? Well, just as disgust might protect us against noxious or contaminated substances, it also might protect us against people we dislike or those who might be harmful to us. Disgust or contempt toward others who engage in actions diametrically opposed to our values, or who may be abusive or harmful to us is useful. It helps us avoid these people. At times, then, disgust can be a very useful emotion, guiding us away from harm, both physically and psychologically. When this is the case it is probably most effective to do what your disgust is telling you to do: Avoid potentially harmful people, objects, and substances. At other times, however, disgust might lead us astray, and I’ll discuss that in a future blog. ~Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.