Skip to main content

Disgust: Is it inate or learned?

Masters degree in Psychology, Minor in forensics, dedicated to making the mental health stigma dissipate as quickly as possible.

Disgust. It’s a feeling we have all felt at one time or another. Disgust doesn’t always come from external stimuli, it can also come from within. Disgust is not only a physical ailment, it can also be a mental ailment that derives from poor self-esteem. You can be disgusted at yourself for having negative thoughts, or physically disgusted because you smell rotting shrimp in the local dumpster. You could also not be disgusted by things that others find disgusting, like autopsies and the smell of gasoline. Disgust is determined by the person and their level of sensation to particular stimuli and their thought process.

Disgust, from a biological standpoint, has been with us forever. It started as a way for evolution to extend our lifespan by giving us this feature which helped us avoid infection and disease (Curtis 2011). Still to this day, dogs lick their butts. It's no secret. They lick their own butt, other dog’s butt, their puppies’ butt and some even eat feces. It is a form of hygiene that we would never participate in today. We have evolved beyond the need to perform such an action. Dogs do not have thumbs to open doors and grab a piece of toilet paper. Also their intelligence level is much lower than humans. I’m not saying we won’t have fully cognizant dogs in the future, but people alive today will never see it. As a person living today, you completely understand why licking your butt or your child’s butt isn’t a good idea. It is known that many diseases are spread through feces and the smell is atrocious which causes immediate disgust. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea. These things we have learned through cultural evolution and adaptation; our innate sense of disgust (Amoroso 2020).

As a baby, you may have eaten something that an adult may find disgusting, such as dog food. When the baby smelled the dog food, all it interpreted was food. Disgust became a learned behavior later. In this instance, our parents told us not to eat dog food because it's not for people. In all actuality, it's okay for people to eat dog food. It doesn’t hold as much nutritional value and its flavor is awful but you won’t die if you eat it. The pure idea of eating it, however, is making some of you sick right now. If you were never told not to eat it, you would probably be tossing handfuls in your mouth for an evening snack. We rely on our parents to teach us the things that keep us safe, thus it is learned disgust.

Curtis, V. (2011, December 12). Why Disgust Matters. National Center of Biotechnology Information.

Amoroso, C., Hanna, E., Labar, K., Borg, J., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Nancy Zuker. (2020, January, Disgust Theory Through the Lens of Psychiatric Medicine. Association for Psychological Science.

Scroll to Continue

© 2022 Lain Golden

Related Articles