Evidence that disgust evolved to protect from risk of disease

Val Curtis, Robert Aunger, Tamer Rabie

Abstract

Disgust is a powerful human emotion that has been little studied until recently. Current theories do not coherently explain the purpose of disgust, nor why a wide range of stimuli can provoke a similar emotional response. Over 40 000 individuals completed a web–based survey using photo stimuli. Images of objects holding a potential disease threat were reported as significantly more disgusting than similar images with little or no disease relevance. This pattern of response was found across all regions of the world. Females reported higher disgust sensitivity than males; there was a constant decline in disgust sensitivity over the life course; and the bodily fluids of strangers were found more disgusting than those of close relatives. These data provide evidence that the human disgust emotion may be an evolved response to objects in the environment that represent threats of infectious disease.