Disgust is in the Eye of the Beholder

Morality and disgust are culturally relative
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Disgust, in its most familiar form, is our response to something vile in the world—spoiled food, a dirty floor or rats cavorting in the subway. It is a contamination-avoidance mechanism that evolved to help us make biologically adaptive decisions in the heat of the moment. Yet disgust has also come to have powerful symbolic elements. When left unchecked, these symbolic qualities can have devastating impacts on our mental states.

Consider, for example, the often dramatized, heartbreaking image of a woman crouched in the corner of a shower and frantically trying to scrub her body clean after being raped. Empirical evidence supports the characterization. Seventy percent of female victims of sexual assault report a strong impulse to wash afterward, and a quarter of these continue to wash excessively up to three months later.

For women, simply imagining an unwanted advance can turn on this moral-cleansing effect. Psychiatrist Nichole Fairbrother of the University of British Columbia Hospital and her colleagues looked more closely at the phenomenon of mental pollution in a study published in 2005. Two groups of female participants were told to close their eyes and picture being kissed. The members of one group were instructed to imagine being aggressively cornered and kissed against their will. The members of the other group were asked to envision themselves in a consensual embrace. Only those women in the coercive condition chose to wash up after the study. In many cases, it seems as though a person's sense of self has become contaminated.

When symbolic disgust gets into one's core identity, the psychological sanitation process is never an easy one. Residual grime clouds the subjective filter through which a person perceives herself. If left untreated, these effects can permanently darken and sully her entire sense of being.

The Immoral Self
Disgust in its more typical forms generates feelings of hatred and loathing of others. Those emotions lead to a behavioral avoidance of the object of one's social distaste. In fact, the measurable physical distance placed between oneself and the hated target, such as in an elevator, can show this effect empirically. No matter how our worldview tilts, we usually do not stand too close to people whom we believe harbor opinions that are morally repellent to us. Nor do we seek to place ourselves in the immediate vicinity of those who have engaged in social behaviors we strongly believe are offensive and wrong.

Avoiding such a morally aversive person gets far more complicated, however, when the primary source of your symbolic disgust is you. After all, there are only three ways to escape the self—depressive sleep, drugs and suicide. Needless to say, none of these options is healthy.

Once a person feels tainted in this way by an act judged to be especially unacceptable by his or her own society, either as the victim of the act or as the offender who feels genuine shame and remorse, these rankling feelings of symbolic disgust can quickly metastasize into malignant self-hatred. Sexually abused children, for example, are far more likely than their peers to develop an exhaustive suite of psychopathologies later in life. Suicide rates skyrocket, and correlations have been found with everything from chronic depression to self-harm (such as cutting), substance abuse, eating disorders, paranoia, hostility and psychoticism.

The most common way of managing the damage is to channel the harmful, caustic emotions elsewhere. Usually this method involves directing the symbolic disgust outward—away from the self—and toward those perceived to be responsible for sullying the self. A 2002 study led by psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University, for instance, showed that the coping strategies of adults who had been sexually abused as children could be reliably gauged by observing their facial displays during a therapy session.

This article was originally published with the title "That's Disgusting."

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