Disgust is a basic emotion, do you have control of it?

Disgust Me – Photo by Matteo Volta


DISGUST: the feeling of intense displeasure or revulsion in response to an offensive or revolting object, person or behavior. It is considered one of the six basic human emotions and is found among all cultures.

The emotion is associated with direct input from the five senses. It can be triggered by smell (e.g., a pungent odor), taste (e.g., a rotten taste), sight (e.g., brownish/grayish colors, certain shapes), sound (e.g., a slithery sound), and touch (e.g., sliminess).

These are considered as the most common, cross-cultural disgust elicitors:

  • Bodily fluids and excretions (like feces, urine, pus and vomit)
  • Spoiled foods
  • Poor hygiene
  • Bodily violations (like blood and mutilation)
  • Death and corpses
  • Animals and insects (like cockroaches, worms and rats)
Photo by Maoby

Then, as also Darwin was stating, what is considered disgusting can vary by culture. For example, in China they eat insects, in Greece they spit on the bride during the wedding, in Japan they need to slurp or it will be considered as a very rude behavior  or in Denmark they hang out in cemeteries…

I noticed that sometimes our feelings of disgust serve no purpose, other times they prevent us from expanding our personal and/or social horizons, or at worst enable us to cause harm or disregard others.

But the most important thing I learned, especially after learning how to live in another country with another culture, is that because disgust is so involved with our thoughts, it is also in our control and we don’t have to be disgusted if we don’t want to be. It is always our choice. We can keep it under control. 



Yep, this may sound always the solution, and indeed somehow it is. They are even coming from the same part of the brain! Let’s try some examples to understand. For example you are disgust from your new neighbors who happen to be not just a foreign, but a migrant or a refugee (?? really??). Instead try to think that because of your strong prejudice you are missing big opportunities to experience new things learn something different and maybe even grow.


Photo by Nathalie P

Like other basic emotions, the elicitation of disgust causes a set of predictable responses. Behaviorally, there is a withdrawal from the object of disgust. So, from the body language point of view, this emotion is very clear. You can tell when people are disgusted by their facial expressions, it is pretty easy. For example we wrinkle our nose, lower brows, narrow the eyes, even protruding the tongue or jerk our heads backwards. Sometimes we even make some strange guttural sound like euhhh, aach, ugh, bleah, etc..


Paradoxically, children, adolescents, and some adults are often fascinated with disgust. You can think about horror movies, jokes, violent sport, funny videos on the social media, sexually repugnant actions.. the all have their own goulash attraction for many people.

It is very important to learn how to control this emotion as we said it may be an unnecessary block we are giving to ourselves that can be resolved with empathy, or in our daily life it may be an obstacle if we express too much disgust both with our body language or our words. But on the other side there are also many benefits about it. For example it may serve to remove us from a revolting or toxic substance, including people who are behaving offensively, or people who are toxic to us. Disgust works to preserve our purity; we become disgusted when we judge something to be impure and we unconsciously decide what is impure for us according to our education and culture.


“This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned—physically and socially.”
Joy, opening narration



What is the risk? The more we feel disgusted by those around us, the more we feel bad about ourselves, and the more we categorize ourselves as disgusting. Allen Schore explains that disgust is an emotional state similar to feeling fear. Both emotions arise as our body responds to a perceived threats to our survival. It is part of what fuels our ability to ask for what we want and need, and it helps us find the gumption to act assertively. However, when we feel disgusted, we automatically suppress our attention to our visual world. Our eyes and nostrils open wide to scan for threats, without paying attention to the other sights and smells around us  We can determine the difference between fear and disgust threats within 96 milliseconds. (2008, Wiens, Golkar, Peira, Öhman). This is way faster than we can think.


  1. Fight with prioritizing the empathy over  prejudices

  2. Take big and deep breath from your diaphragm, it calms you down and give you time to think lucidly

  3. Share your feelings with someone close to you

  4. Remember what is in your power zone and what it is not

  5. Work on the awareness of this feeling, try to write down all the triggers that are provoking this feeling to you

    So, have a good work on yourself! It’s so exciting and satisfying working on our personal development and fulfill our potential! If you want to reserve a free intake coaching session with me, don’t hesitate to contact me at: martina.pavone@gmail.com Let the adventure begin!

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