Desensitization of Disgust

two images of a bearded man in 19th or early 20th century clothing looking disgusted
Two versions of a “disgust” response. See note in the photo credits about the non-universality of emotions and how they are portrayed.

Disgust can save your life. But sometimes it gets attached to weird stuff, just as fear does.

I’m interrupting this dog blog to talk about human beings for a little while. I have to share something fascinating I learned back while researching a previous post.

I have written a fair amount about desensitization and counterconditioning. One of my more extensive posts was “You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies At Me!” In that post, I designed a hypothetical DS/CC protocol for my phobia of crawdads. While reading studies for that post, I ran across a pocket of research about desensitizing the emotion of disgust.

Huh? I had never considered that desensitization would be used for anything besides fear. But using it for disgust made sense when I thought about it.

Disgust Can Save Your Life

Like the emotion of fear, disgust can save your life. Fear causes you to try your best to escape a wild carnivore, a human intent on harm, or an out-of-control fire. Disgust causes you to avoid food with visible or olfactory clues that it is not safe to eat. It causes you to avoid contact with excrement and other things that tend to carry unfriendly bacteria. It causes you to respond with “Ewww!” to the signs of vermin. (You can thank me right now for the restraint I employed in choosing images to accompany this post! You are welcome!) Disgust is absolutely connected to survival.

And like fear, disgust can apparently go wild and get attached to things inappropriately. That’s when desensitization can be somewhat useful.

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks serious
How about a cute puppy instead of a disgusting image? (I acknowledge that dogs are disgusting in some cultures. Just probably not to my readers.)

Now, since disgust is a functional response, we don’t want to try to eliminate it or treat it inappropriately. It would not be ethical to try to diminish fear and install feelings of happiness and attraction in a human at the sight of, say, a forest fire or a tornado. It would likewise be unethical to try to replace the disgust response to things that are unequivocally harmful.

So exposure therapy is generally limited to treatment for the “disgust” equivalent of a phobic response, a response that is disproportionate to the potential harm of the trigger. (Phobia has a different clinical definition for dogs. I’m describing humans right now.)

Fear and Disgust Together

Fear and disgust both tend to prompt distance-increasing behaviors. Interestingly, they can be attached to the same things. Horror novelists and moviemakers know his. Consider the movie Alien, for example. The monster is not just scary. It’s disgusting, right? It oozes and drips and pops out of people. So does John Carpenter’s The Thing (shudder). Items that have characteristics of offal, are parasitic, ooze, or have lots of legs trigger disgust in many people.

This intertwining of the two avoidance emotions was the topic of several research papers I read. For instance, it turns out that arachnophobes generally have a considerable disgust response to spiders as well. More on that below.

I thought about disgust with regard to my own phobia. I noted in my previous post that my phobia of crawdads does not extend to lobsters, which are much more capable of causing harm. And I can tell you why.  Lobsters generally look clean, whereas my real-life interactions with crawdads have been in murky water. I vividly remember seeing a large crawdad in a pond that was cut off from the creek I used to spend a lot of time in. The crustacean was holding very, very still. It had algae and murk on it. And when I poked it with a stick (I was a kid, okay?), it fell slowly to pieces. It was long dead and decayed. Ewww!

a pond with a wooden pier jutting out into it. The pond is surrounded by trees.
Only nice, clean, frisky crawdads in Bass Pond in Lanesboro, MN!

Crawdads bring up the “ick” response for me for sure! I found out subsequently that this is classified by some as the “animal reminder” type of disgust. I am not particularly sensitized to some of the typical animal triggers, though. For instance, I am not generally bothered by spiders, I like snakes (although I do have a startle response when I see one unexpectedly), and I am very fond of rats and have had them as pets. Crawdads not so much!

Classifications of Disgust and the Disgust Scale

Experts have identified several categories of disgust. One categorization currently in favor has only three classes (decreased from many more in previous publications). They are as follows.

  • Core disgust is based on a sense of offensiveness and the threat of contamination.
  • Animal reminder disgust reflects the aversion of stimuli that serve as reminders of the animal origins of humans.
  • Contamination-based disgust is a disgust reaction based on the perceived threat of transmission of contagion. (Olatunji et al, 2007)

Interestingly, core disgust and contamination-based disgust can correlate with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Berle & Phillips, 2006).

If you are interested in the topic of disgust and how you “rate” with regard to different types of it, check out the Disgust Scale Home Page. The Disgust Scale was created by some scientists and is widely used. On the home page, you can also request copies of some of their scholarly articles through an automated responder.

My scores were quite a bit higher than average in both core and contamination-based disgust. Whaddaya know!

Desensitization of Disgust

One of the more interesting articles I read that is available in full online was  “An examination of the decline in fear and disgust during exposure-based treatment,” (Smits et al, 2002). This study used exposure therapy on people who both feared and were disgusted by spiders. Desensitization was more successful at lessening fear than lessening disgust. That seems to be a general trend from what I’ve read. Isn’t it fascinating? The article discusses the relationship between fear and disgust and how they interact.

Disgust can be associated with stimuli that are not disgusting in the usual physical sense. These are the categories of disgust that relate to social and moral stances.

When people say that they are disgusted by classes of people unlike them, that can be the literal truth. They may have an internal response to some humans that is similar to how they would react to garbage. That is downright scary, especially considering the durability of the disgust response. On the other hand, some sociologists worry that we may be getting too habituated to horrific behaviors such as torture. In that case, we may be deficient in our disgust response.

Those topics are for another post. Suffice it to say that this is a rich field of research. The three articles listed below, as well as the Disgust Scale Home Page will provide lots of info if you are interested.

The Power of Disgust

When I was about seven years old, my family went on a vacation to the mountains for about a week. When we got back, I went straight to the refrigerator to get a drink of milk. I took a big swig straight from the carton. The milk was completely sour and clotted. It was a huge shock. I was just a little kid and it was completely new to my world. I had never tasted sour milk, in fact, I didn’t know milk could get sour. For a moment I didn’t even know what was happening. It was appalling. I think I made it to the sink to spit it out.

That was about 50 years ago, and to this day I still don’t trust milk.  I still like it (although I am in favor of more humane alternatives since the mainstream dairy industry is horrifying). But I always sniff it before using it. Always. And if a carton is even close to its date, I throw it away even if it smells OK.

I drank very sour milk once. A lifetime ago. My behavior was forever changed. That’s the power of disgust.

References and Further Reading

Berle, D., & Phillips, E. S. (2006). Disgust and obsessive-compulsive disorder: An update. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes69(3), 228-238.

Olatunji, B. O., Williams, N. L., Tolin, D. F., Abramowitz, J. S., Sawchuk, C. N., Lohr, J. M., & Elwood, L. S. (2007). The Disgust Scale: item analysis, factor structure, and suggestions for refinement. Psychological assessment19(3), 281. Available at

Smits, J. A. J., Telch, M. J., & Randall, P. K. (2002). An examination of the decline in fear and disgust during exposure-based treatment. Behaviour Research and Therapy40(11), 1243-1253. Currently available here, although you may need to look up the link yourself if this one doesn’t work.

Disgust Scale Home Page, location of the disgust quiz itself and many other interesting surveys

Image Sources

IMAGE: “Expression of the Emotions Plate V, 2+3” by Oscar Gustave Rejlander – Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This image and the others in Darwin’s collection are now controversial. This is because the studies that used these images and others like them to seek evidence for the universality of human emotions across cultures were generally flawed. See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work for more information. Her work may also affect things I have written in this post, but I don’t know enough about it yet to make changes.

IMAGE: Puppy Clara on a blue mat, copyright Eileen Anderson 2011.

IMAGE: Bass Pond Pier in Lanesboro, MN by user Lanesboro Arts. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Text and the specified image copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

12 thoughts on “Desensitization of Disgust

  1. In terms of disgust-conditioning, a funny story. Well, “funny.”

    I used to work at a dog daycare and my coworker was obsessed with cleaning, even more than the average kennel employee. Every time there was a particularly smelly dog poop, she would spray the area and the trash can HEAVILY with lavender-scented lysol.

    I have a very poor sense of smell as a baseline. After three years of having those smells repeatedly linked, I am so strongly conditioned that lavender lysol = rancid dog shit that I literally cannot distinguish the two smells anymore. I once accidentally bought the lavender-scented lysol and then spent half an hour searching the house high and low to figure out where one of my dogs had had diarrhea… before remembering that I’d used a lavender spray.

    And I had an experience similar to your curdled-milk situation, but mine was grape jelly on toast with scrambled eggs. Not sure which part made me sick, but I couldn’t eat grape jelly without feeling queasy for a decade or two.

    1. OMG! Note to self: do not send lavender scented products to Bridger! I got a little bit queasy just hearing about your grape jelly! Probably because I don’t eat eggs and that juxtaposition sounds on the icky side…


  2. Wasps. Just the standard picnic-interrupting Vespa vulgaris, common yellow-jacket. My completely irrational dislike of them has increased over the years to the point where I’d consider myself mildly phobic now, and I think I’m basically developing a fear response due to the strength of my disgust response.

    See, I’m not worried about being stung, and other potentially pain-inducing insects don’t bother me (I have a mild issue with the idea of something flying into my ears, but that’s not wasp-specific.) But the idea of a wasp touching me literally elicits an involuntary shudder of revulsion, and if one actually does make contact it feels like removing the touched body part wouldn’t be an unreasonable response! I had to throw out a brand new toothbrush once because a wasp landed on it – not the bristles, you understand, but the handle – there was no way I could bring myself to put that toothbrush in my mouth after that. Yuk.

    My thinking brain knows this is silly. But I can’t help it because wasps are… just, eeew, wasps. Nope. I’ll just stay inside all summer.

    1. Anna, that’s fascinating! Thanks for sharing. So interesting that they evoke the disgust response, especially since their stings hurt!

      I had a friend a long time ago who had a phobia of inch-long moths. Not smaller ones, not bigger ones. Specifically the drab, grayisn inch-long ones. She was afraid they would fly up her nose. I suspect some of that was a disgust response as well.

    2. Anna, that’s fascinating! Thanks for sharing. So interesting that they evoke the disgust response, especially since their stings hurt!

      I had a friend a long time ago who had a phobia of inch-long moths. Not smaller ones, not bigger ones. Specifically the drab, grayish inch-long ones. She was afraid they would fly up her nose. I suspect some of that was a disgust response as well.

      This was a person who was not normally squeamish and liked all sorts of insects, arachnids, reptiles, etc., that most people would be bothered by. But man, those moths!


      1. Not to try to trivialise your friend’s response, but I had an immediate mental image of her chasing moths around with a ruler to check whether she should be scared or not, and I had to share because it amused me. 🙂

        I think my dislike of wasps is specific in a similar way though, so I get it. I’m on alert if I think I recognise their horrible high-pitched buzzing, and I have to identify the insect so I know whether to allow myself to calm down or not. Honey bee? Okay. Don’t annoy it, but you’re okay. Hoverfly (mimics Vespa vulgaris)? No problem, I quite like those guys. V. vulgaris? OMG IT MIGHT TOUCH ME SOMEONE MOVE IT PLEASE BEFORE I HAVE TO PANIC PROPERLY

        I found a species I wasn’t familiar with in a hotel room in Dallas a few years ago and had a response to that, but not like my common wasp disgust response. It was obviously some kind of wasp, bigger and “ganglier” than my nemesis, and my automatic thought process seemed to be something along the lines of “fear it because you don’t know what it is or what it can do” which is much more rational. I was able to approach close enough to trap it under a glass until my roomie returned and removed it for me, but unable to relax until she’d done so. With a common wasp I’d have left the room!

        1. Yeah, you get the specificity! I think it was probably a certain species because they were pretty instantly recognizable. But she is one who would have used a ruler if she had to!

          I know the “ganglier” wasps of which you speak. I think of them as “danglier.” Good that you were able to cope with one!


  3. I frankly had never thought about this before. So many different layers to it. Eileen, you continue to stretch my world.

    Please stretch it a little more, too: (Phobia has a different clinical definition for dogs. I’m describing humans right now.) Could you do a column on this?

    1. Hi Chris!
      Don’t know if I can muster a whole post on that, but I’ll give you the gist. Here is Dr. Karen Overall’s definition of phobia in dogs: “Profound, non-graded, extreme response to some consistent stimulus or set of stimuli manifest as intense, active avoidance, escape, or anxiety behaviors associated with the activities of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.”

      Notice that it is mostly a description of behavior, and doesn’t imply anything about the dog’s state of mind except that the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is involved. The definition doesn’t even include the word “fear.”

      On the other hand, almost all definitions of phobia for humans include the words “irrational” and “fear.” It’s understood to be a misplaced or over-the-top fear.

      For dogs, we can’t say a fear is irrational because we can’t get inside their heads. We don’t know if “rational” and “irrational” have any meaning in dog brains. We have to kind of make the judgment for them. IF they have an extreme response (as described by Dr. Overall) to the new chair we put in the living room, we might call that a phobia. So we will classically condition them not to be afraid of the new chair because the chair can’t hurt them. But we won’t try to condition them not to be afraid of bears and snakes. (I don’t know if an extreme response to bears or snakes would qualify as a phobia in dogs or not. In my lay person’s view, that would seem odd. But I’m not a vet behaviorist!)

      That was a great question!


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