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Yuck! The Science Of Disgust

This show is a rebroadcast from January 25, 2012.

From spoiled milk to monkey brains – and worse. What revolts us and why? We’ll take on the science of disgust.

’That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion’ by Rachel Herz. (W.W. Norton)

’That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion’ by Rachel Herz. (W.W. Norton)

We talk a lot about basic human emotions:  happiness, sadness, anger fear, surprise.  The ugly duckling, the one we don’t talk so much about, is disgust.  But it’s out there.  Potent.  Ubiquitous.  Ready to pounce.  A horrible smell, a bloody spill, a rotten dish.  Ooey, gooey, nasty, slimy, sticky stuff – ooh, gross!  Disgusting! Unless we like some of that stuff.

A pungent cheese may disgust me and delight you.  Cheese with maggots?  Some people love it.  Disgust is part instinct.  It’s part culture.  And it goes very deep in our psyches.

This hour, On Point:  the window on us that is disgust.

-Tom Ashbrook


Rachael Herz, psychologist, neuroscientist, and leading expert on the psychology of smell. She’s the author of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Disgust is the Cinderella of emotions. While fear, sadness and anger, its nasty, flashy sisters, have drawn the rapt attention of psychologists, poor disgust has been hidden away in a corner, left to muck around in the ashes. ”

The Washington Post “Sorry, America. NBC’s gross-out, terror-inducing series “Fear Factor” is back. Whether you’re a fan or a foe, though, Rachel Herz’s “That’s Disgusting” should be required reading. Herz, an olfactory psychology expert at Brown University, knows of what she speaks: Since 2008 she has been a judge at the National Rotten Sneakers Contest.”


Take this survey, created by psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, to measure your tolerance of disgust and compare it to others.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    I think the basis of “disgusting” was a survival trait to balance hunger against the danger of eating something marginally edible – although I have no idea how it eventually extended to things like unstylish shoes.

  • Gregg Smith

    We’ve had our horse farm almost 3 decades. In that time we’ve seen many kids grow up and move on. There was one little girl who started taking lessons when she was 10. She got her own horse soon after. She grew up here with her horse. Then she went off to college and took her horse with her. Eventually the horse died and she felt very strongly it should be buried here at the farm. It was really quite touching.

    They put it in a horse trailer and brought to to us. That’s where my job starts. By the time it got here it was a bloated oozing stinking carcass. Rigor mortis had set in making it very difficult to unload with a tractor and chain. Then I dragged it to the hole leaving a smear of death. I cut a lock of mane for the owner, pushed the horse in the hole and covered it up. Then I had to clean the trailer with bleach.

    A day or two later they picked up the sanitized trailer and the washed lock of mane tied with a ribbon. It was so sweet but they had no idea what I had to do to make it happen.

  • Ian Helmar


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VTONLKNZ3PVP4AZJN646CQLKH4 Maloch

    I find myself disgusted by people chewing. It is difficult to watch coaches at a football game, for example, if they are chewing away like bulls. Worst of all is to face 100-200 students chewing away in your face as you try to lecture.

    • ploafer

      I have a problem with people chewing.  It puts my nerves on edge.   I usually have to leave the room or plug my ears so I don’t hell at people to stop chewing.  I recently discovered there is a disorder called Misophonia.  there is a website you can look up that tells all about it.  maybe that is what you have too.

  • ThirdWayForward

    So disgust is connected to a Self/Other system in the brain, and these circuits can be activated and manipulated for political ends.

    One does not need to go as far as Rwanda or Nazi Germany to see its use as a political tool. One sees it in rabid anti_Obama sentiments, in gory anti-abortion ads, and in anti-immigrant vitriol, but one does not see it (much) in left-leaning propaganda, such as anti-gun violence.

    Why is it that the right tends to play more on our baser instincts, such as disgust?

    How can we immunize our politics from these irrational undercurrents?

  • MD Wag

    A Inuit woman stirring a pot of boiling stew over a fire went off and relieved herself in the corner of the hut. Then she wiped her bottom with the stick, and went back to stirring the huge pot of stew with it. It seemed to be not unusual. That was in the late 1850′s I think, related by Kane.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4WARN3MMC225SRENE6RCXGKD7M Jaki Reis

    Have you noticed that a significant part of the population (at least in my neck of the woods, NYC) had their notion of disgusting things strongly influenced by the show Seinfield?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502464197 Pete Darnell

    Natto is the most disgusting dish I’ve ever tried (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natt%C5%8D) It’s a commonly eaten Japanese dish of fermented soy beans. It didn’t have much flavor but had the consistency of sticky phlegm that I couldn’t get past.

  • anamaria23

    My mother loved to adorn her food with Parmesan Cheese where upon my sister and I would whisper “Mama is  eating throw-up again”    My sister still hates it, but I now  can’t get enough of it.

  • simone218

    Actually the sound-expression for disgust (eeeewww) is not the same or even similar across different cultures. Where I come from (Austria) the vocal expression for disgust would be something like  a w with a long drawn out aaa (same sound as in apple, but long) – I’m wondering if that sound relates more to dis-gust (as in a gustatory response) whereas the American eeewww relates more to a dis-smell (olfactory response)? The face associated with the two (in me at least) is also not quite the same.

  • Jinshun Wang

    Haha, disgusting foods. Salted duck eggs, stinky tofu, all manners of fermented stuff, heck even alcohol. You might not think about it much, but booze is byproduct of the breakdown of sugars in grains, fruits, and other foods by certain bacteria. In fact some alcohols can be made of pretty far out stuff.

    Tofu can be called the Far East counterpart to cheese, as it’s pretty much fermented bean curds, while cheese is fermented milk curds. You’d be surprised at how much of the foods you eat is fermented or processed by bacteria, or is a close relative to bacteria. Like mushrooms: they’re fungi, and thus related to that nasty mold that grows on bread and meat that has gone bad.Also, tying disgust to lust, well a quick search of the internet can turn up all sorts of interesting results. Some fetishes are really far out there in relation to what is considered to be the American social norm…

  • NeuroscienceRules

    Disgust is an affect of “misophonia.” see http://www.sound-rage.com

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