Disgust and Attraction

Along with happiness, sadness, surprise and anger, disgust is one of the basic human emotions. And it might appear to be one of the simplest, too. We’re disgusted by things that are repellent, that we want to get away from. But did you know that our individual propensity to feel disgust can also influence how we judge facial attractiveness?

A few years ago it was discovered that there are three different types of disgust, and that each of us can have high levels of disgust in one domain, but low levels in another. The three types are pathogen disgust, sexual disgust and moral disgust. Pathogen disgust is what we normally imagine when we think of disgust. It’s the feeling we get when we’re presented with objects that are likely to make us sick, such as rotten food or infected wounds. Sexual disgust is the disgust we feel for certain sexual behaviours, such as having sex in exchange for money or when a stranger touches us. And moral disgust is the repulsion we feel for behaviour that just isn’t cricket, like cheating in an exam, fiddling expense claims or selling drugs.

Now, you might be thinking that, of the three, sexual disgust sounds the most likely candidate for a type of disgust that could be linked to attraction, because attraction has a very obvious link with sex. But that’s not the case. Research has shown that it’s pathogen disgust that plays the bigger role in the mating game. That’s because avoiding disease is one of our major preoccupations, and this was especially true of our distant ancestors, who lived before the advent of modern medicine. The primary defence against infection of Cro Magnon man and woman was to avoid the objects, and the people, who might make them ill. And because a person’s attractiveness is linked to their ability to avoid disease—with those fortunate enough to be beauties often blessed with a clean bill of health—it makes sense for those of us who easily fall ill to avoid socialising, and also mating, with unattractive people who might pass on their infections.

Justin Park and colleagues from the University of Bristol in the UK tested this theory on 330 men and women. The researchers presented their participants with a disgust questionnaire and had them rate a set of facial photographs for attractiveness.

The results showed that those whose pathogen disgust was high—those who found it almost excruciatingly repulsive to imagine stepping in a pile of dog poo or sitting next to someone with open red sores on their arms—found unattractive faces especially unattractive. In other words, people who got a high disgust score were also likely to give low attractiveness scores to faces that had been independently assessed as unattractive. Ratings of attractive faces, however, were unaffected by disgust.

This means that those who are prone to pathogen disgust don’t avoid all other people: they’re only biased against those who most would agree aren’t lookers.

As if those of us who aren’t blessed with catwalk-standard good looks didn’t have enough to worry about: now we’ve got to be prepared to be stood up by dates who are scared of catching cooties.

Park, J. H., van Leeuwen, F., & Stephen, I. D. (in press). Homeliness is in the disgust sensitivity of the beholder: relatively unattractive faces appear especially unattractive to individuals higher in pathogen disgustEvolution and Human Behavior. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the April 2012 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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