Why psychologists can't decide if moral disgust is even a thing

Michelle Durbano
We should care deeply about disgust. It protects us from possible dangerous substances like rotting meat and is crucial to our moral values.

It was absent from psychological research until about 20 years ago. It is still obscured today. It is still a mystery to many people today.

The feeling of physical disgust can be caused by vomit, feces or other substances. Although this can vary from person to person, it helps us avoid touching or ingestion of potentially harmful substances that could threaten our survival.


Moral disgust is the feeling that you have when someone breaks social norms or moral codes. This emotion can be triggered by hearing of someone having an affair or seeing someone steal.

Psychologists argue that moral and physical disgust can be two sides of one coin. Some psychologists argue that the word disgust can be used in both cases, but when moral norms are violated, people actually experience anger.

Anger and disgust are negative emotions that have been associated with morality. However, while disgust can motivate us to avoid certain things, anger forces us to confront what is causing us anger.

My latest research has focused on the psychology of disgust. I used parent-child conversations to further examine this schism. These conversations are an important tool in developmental psychology because parents can use them to teach their kids about emotions, values, and moral issues. These may be especially relevant for our understanding of disgust, as children understand it only around three to four years later than other basic emotions. This suggests that disgust has a social component and that children may learn from their parents.

My colleagues and I interviewed 68 English-speaking mothers with their children aged 4, 6, or 8. We then created a series to tell them about the stories. Each story featured a main character who did a physical or moral transgression. The mothers and children were then asked to describe the emotions they felt after each transgression.

Both were more likely than the other to express disgust at physical transgressions rather than anger. However, moral transgressions were more often discussed by both parents and children. They were more likely to express disgust than anger when they were discussing them. These actions are often criticized by children and mothers.

This suggests that children and mothers are more likely than their parents to associate disgust with physical transgressions with anger with moral ones.

Does this mean that moral disgust is not possible? It is our opinion that it does.

Although our research will not resolve the issue of moral disgust, it will help us to understand why. The more we understand it, however, the closer we come to understanding how morality is formed.