Disgust: the disease-avoidance emotion and its dysfunctions

Graham C. L. Davey

Abstract

This review analyses the accumulating evidence from psychological, psychophysiological, neurobiological and cognitive studies suggesting that the disease-avoidance emotion of disgust is a predominant emotion experienced in a number of psychopathologies. Current evidence suggests that disgust is significantly related to small animal phobias (particularly spider phobia), blood–injection–injury phobia and obsessive–compulsive disorder contamination fears, and these are all disorders that have primary disgust elicitors as a significant component of their psychopathology. Disgust propensity and sensitivity are also significantly associated with measures of a number of other psychopathologies, including eating disorders, sexual dysfunctions, hypochondriasis, height phobia, claustrophobia, separation anxiety, agoraphobia and symptoms of schizophrenia—even though many of these psychopathologies do not share the disease-avoidance functionality that characterizes disgust. There is accumulating evidence that disgust does represent an important vulnerability factor for many of these psychopathologies, but when disgust-relevant psychopathologies do meet the criteria required for clinical diagnosis, they are characterized by significant levels of both disgust and fear/anxiety. Finally, it has been argued that disgust may also facilitate anxiety and distress across a broad range of psychopathologies through its involvement in more complex human emotions such as shame and guilt, and through its effect as a negative affect emotion generating threat-interpretation biases.

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