The science behind disgust

From dead bodies to pickles, the things that gross us out reveal a great deal about us. An expert explains

Mandy Van Deven

We all have things that disgust us irrationally, whether it be cockroaches or chitterlings or cotton balls. For me, it’s fruit soda. It started when I was 3; my mom offered me a can of Sunkist after inner ear surgery. Still woozy from the anesthesia, I gulped it down, and by the time we made it to the cashier, all of it managed to come back up. Although it is nearly 30 years later, just the smell of this "fun, sun and the beach" drink is enough to turn my stomach.

But what, exactly, happens when we feel disgust? As Daniel Kelly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University, explains in his new book, "Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust," it’s not just a physical sensation, it’s a powerful emotional warning sign. Although disgust initially helped keep us away from rotting food and contagious disease, the defense mechanism changed over time to effect the distance we keep from one another. When allowed to play a role in the creation of social policy, Kelly argues, disgust might actually cause more harm than good.

Salon spoke with Kelly about hiding the science behind disgust, why we’re captivated by things we find revolting, and how it can be a very dangerous thing.

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