Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behaviour

Valerie Curtis, Mícheál de Barra, Robert Aunger

Abstract

Disgust is an evolved psychological system for protecting organisms from infection through disease avoidant behaviour. This ‘behavioural immune system’, present in a diverse array of species, exhibits universal features that orchestrate hygienic behaviour in response to cues of risk of contact with pathogens. However, disgust is also a dynamic adaptive system. Individuals show variation in pathogen avoidance associated with psychological traits like having a neurotic personality, as well as a consequence of being in certain physiological states such as pregnancy or infancy. Three specialized learning mechanisms modify the disgust response: the Garcia effect, evaluative conditioning and the law of contagion. Hygiene behaviour is influenced at the group level through social learning heuristics such as ‘copy the frequent’. Finally, group hygiene is extended symbolically to cultural rules about purity and pollution, which create social separations and are enforced as manners. Cooperative hygiene endeavours such as sanitation also reduce pathogen prevalence. Our model allows us to integrate perspectives from psychology, ecology and cultural evolution with those of epidemiology and anthropology. Understanding the nature of disease avoidance psychology at all levels of human organization can inform the design of programmes to improve public health.

Footnotes

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