PERSONALITY PROCESSES AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES
Microbes, Mating, and Morality: Individual Differences in Three
Functional Domains of Disgust
Joshua M. Tybur
University of New Mexico
University of Miami
University of Minnesota
What is the function of disgust? Whereas traditional models have suggested that disgust serves to protect
the self or neutralize reminders of our animal nature, an evolutionary perspective suggests that disgust
functions to solve 3 qualitatively different adaptive problems related to pathogen avoidance, mate choice,
and social interaction. The authors investigated this 3-domain model of disgust across 4 studies and
examined how sensitivity to these functional domains relates to individual differences in other psycho-
logical constructs. Consistent with their predictions, factor analyses demonstrated that disgust sensitivity
partitions into domains related to pathogens, sexuality, and morality. Further, sensitivity to the 3 domains
showed predictable differentiation based on sex, perceived vulnerability to disease, psychopathic ten-
dencies, and Big 5 personality traits. In exploring these 3 domains of disgust, the authors introduce a new
measure of disgust sensitivity. Appreciation of the functional heterogeneity of disgust has important
implications for research on individual differences in disgust sensitivity, emotion, clinical impairments,
Keywords: disgust, individual differences, emotions, evolutionary psychology
Disgust is a heterogeneous emotion, elicited in response to a
variety of acts and substances ranging from feces and vomit to
incest and pornography to lying and stealing. The varied nature of
disgust raises questions of how best to characterize the emotion’s
function and, of particular interest here, how to investigate patterns
of individual differences in how the emotion is experienced.
Whereas previous models have suggested that disgust motivates
avoidance to serve more general functions (e.g., protecting the self;
S. B. Miller, 2004), we draw on an adaptationist perspective and
propose that selection has favored the evolution of three function-
ally specialized domains: pathogen disgust, which motivates the
avoidance of infectious microorganisms; sexual disgust, which
motivates the avoidance of sexual partners and behaviors that
would jeopardize one’s long-term reproductive success; and moral
disgust, which motivates the avoidance of social norm violators.
We use this theoretical perspective to generate and test hypotheses
related to individual differences in disgust sensitivity and to sug-
gest that an improved understanding of disgust has significant
implications for multiple areas of psychological research.
A Brief History of Disgust
Emotion researchers have long recognized disgust as one of the
basic human emotions (Darwin, 1872/1965; Plutchik, 1962;
Tomkins & McCarter, 1964). Disgust has a culturally universal
facial expression (Ekman & Friesen, 1975) and a signature phys-
iological response including nausea and vomiting (Rozin & Fallon,
1987), increased salivation (Angyal, 1941), and activation of the
autonomic nervous system (Ekman, Levenson, & Friesen, 1983;
R. W. Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990; Zajonc & McIntosh,
1992). Theories of the function of disgust have traditionally fo-
cused on the oral rejection of harmful or distasteful substances
(Ekman & Friesen, 1975; Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Tomkins, 1963).
For example, Darwin (1872/1965) defined disgust as referring to
“something revolting, primarily in relation to the sense of taste, as
actually perceived or vividly imagined; and secondarily to any-
thing which causes a similar feeling, through the sense of smell,
touch, and even of eyesight” (p. 250). Similarly, Angyal (1941), in
another early consideration of disgust, proposed that disgust is
Joshua M. Tybur, Department of Psychology, University of New Mex-
ico; Debra Lieberman, Department of Psychology, University of Miami;
Vladas Griskevicius, Department of Marketing, University of Minnesota.
Joshua M. Tybur and Debra Lieberman contributed equally to the
development of this project. We thank Angela Bryan, Steven Gangestad,
Dan Fessler, and Geoffrey Miller for their helpful comments on previous
versions of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joshua
M. Tybur, Department of Psychology, University of New Mexico, Albu-
querque, NM 87131-1161. E-mail: email@example.com
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009, Vol. 97, No. 1, 103–122
© 2009 American Psychological Association 0022-3514/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0015474
directed against the threat of ingesting certain substances, includ-
ing bodily wastes of humans and other animals.
The recognition that disgust applies to objects and acts beyond
food (e.g., dead bodies, incest, moral transgressions) has led some
theorists to suggest that the emotion serves a more general function
of protecting and maintaining the self (e.g., S. B. Miller, 2004),
whereas others have posited an expansion of the function of
disgust into multiple distinct domains. Chief among the proposed
models of disgust has been the model advanced by Rozin and
colleagues (Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994; Haidt, Rozin, Mc-
Cauley, & Imada, 1997; Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Rozin, Haidt, &
McCauley, 2000; Rozin, Lowery, & Ebert, 1994; Rozin, Millman,
& Nemeroff, 1986). After examining the varied elicitors of disgust,
Rozin et al. (2000) concluded that the emotion functions in four
separate domains: (a) core disgust, which functions to protect the
body from contamination and is elicited by certain foods, animals,
and body products; (b) animal reminder disgust, which functions to
protect the soul by preventing people from recognizing their ani-
mal nature—and thus their mortality—and is elicited by sex, bad
hygiene, death, and body envelope violations (i.e., acts that involve
punctured skin or objects entering the body); (c) interpersonal
disgust, which functions to protect the soul and social order and is
elicited by contact with undesirable others; and (d) moral disgust,
which also functions to protect the social order and is elicited by
On the basis of this model of disgust, Haidt et al. (1994)
developed the Disgust Scale as a measure of individual differences
in disgust sensitivity. The Disgust Scale was intended to assay
individual differences across core disgust and animal reminder
disgust, plus sensitivity to acts thought to capture two laws of
magical thinking: (a) the law of contagion (i.e., the notion that
contact communicates properties between substances) and (b) the
law of similarity (i.e., the notion that perceptually similar objects
possess similar attributes; see Rozin et al., 1986). To date, the
Disgust Scale has been used in more than 100 published articles
spanning diverse areas of research, including studies of social
stigma (Smith, Loewenstein, Rozin, Sherriff, & Ubel, 2007), pho-
bias (Olatunji, Williams, Sawchuk, & Lohr, 2006), obsessive–
compulsive disorder (Berle & Philips, 2006; Woody & Tolin,
2002), gender roles (Charash, McCay, & Dipaolo, 2006), ethno-
centrism (Navarrete & Fessler, 2006), attitudes toward body image
and the self (Burris & Rempel, 2004; Fessler & Haley, 2006),
religiosity (Olatunji, Tolin, Huppert, & Lohr, 2005), homophobia
(Olatunji, 2008), and eating disorders (Troop, Murphy, Bramon, &
Treasure, 2000; Troop, Treasure, & Serpell, 2002). However, a
number of theoretical and measurement issues limit the utility of
this conception of individual differences in disgust sensitivity.
Problems With Past Conceptualizations and
Measurements of Disgust Sensitivity
Although the perspective suggested by Rozin and colleagues
(Haidt et al., 1994, 1997; Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Rozin et al., 1986,
1994, 2000) effectively highlights the varied nature of disgust,
there remain a number of important theoretical and measurement
issues that have yet to be addressed. A first issue relates to the
proposed domain of animal reminder disgust. According to Rozin
and colleagues, humans feel disgust toward features that remind us
of our animal nature because such features threaten to make us feel
“lowered, debased, and (perhaps most critically) mortal”
(Rozin et al., 2000, p. 642). Drawing from work by E. Becker
(1973) and terror management theory (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski,
Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000), Rozin et al. (2000) further sug-
gested, “disgust can be understood as a defense against a universal
fear of death” (p. 643). This perspective can be questioned on
multiple fronts. First, from an evolutionary perspective, the sur-
vival value of an anti-animal reminder mechanism is questionable
(see Fessler & Navarrete, 2005; Kirkpatrick & Navarrete, 2006).
Second, assuming the universal fear of death characterized by
terror management theory even exists, it is unclear how a disgust
response would alleviate such a fear or neutralize a reminder of
humanity’s membership within the animal kingdom. Disgust does
not seem well engineered to perform this function. Third, the
existence of an animal reminder domain composed of disgust
toward sexuality, death, envelope violations, and hygiene has
never been demonstrated empirically; indeed, these four categories
are characterized as separate, modestly correlated domains on the
Disgust Scale. Finally, some have suggested that there is not much
evidence that people even avoid reminders that they are animals
(Bloom, 2004; Fessler & Navarrete, 2005; Royzman & Sabini,
2001). For example, many English phrases indicate that humans
often appreciate comparisons to animals (e.g., “cool cat,” “strong
as an ox,” “brave as a lion,” “gentle as a dove,” “wise as an owl”),
and people do not seem disgusted by or avoidant of many behav-
iors that both humans and nonhuman animals engage in, including
sleeping, breathing, jumping, and walking. In fact, people readily
blur the line between humans and nonhumans by inviting pets into
their families as honorary kin. In sum, the theoretical, empirical,
and practical support for a distinct animal reminder domain of
disgust is tenuous.
A second issue concerns the conceptual distinctiveness of the
domains proposed by Rozin et al. (2000). The majority of disgust
elicitors bundled into these domains appear to be parsimoniously
explained as sources of disease. Although core disgust is suggested
to function to protect against disease, disgust responses toward
many disease risks are categorized into other domains. For exam-
ple, disgust toward corpses, flesh wounds, and individuals with
poor hygiene—all sources of infection—are considered elicitors of
animal reminder disgust. Further, disgust toward undesirable
strangers, who may also carry communicable diseases, is catego-
rized as interpersonal disgust. Thus, it is not clear that these
putative domains are necessarily conceptually distinct.
These issues have important ramifications for the model of
individual differences introduced by Haidt et al. (1994). In devel-
oping the Disgust Scale, Haidt et al. (1994) first asked people to
generate a list of disgust elicitors. Although the researchers sug-
gested the existence of four disgust domains (e.g., Rozin et al.,
2000), they qualitatively categorized disgust elicitors into eight
different categories without clear theoretical justification: offen-
sive food substances, animals, body products, death, body enve-
lope violations, inappropriate sexual behavior, bad hygiene, and
moral offenses. When quantitative analyses revealed that the items
concerning moral offenses did not covary with the others, the
moral domain was omitted from the measure. In place of the moral
domain, the researchers added their own items relating to the laws
of magical thinking, ultimately yielding the 32-item Disgust Scale.
Although the researchers began scale development with the goal of
creating a multidimensional measure of disgust sensitivity, the
104 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
eight qualitatively derived subdomains demonstrated low internal
reliability (alphas ranging from .34 to .60, with an average of .48)
and were thus deemed “not high enough for interpretation of
individual patterns of subscale scores” (Haidt et al., 1994, p. 711).
In aggregate, however, the 32-item measure demonstrated good
internal reliability (␣⫽.81), and Haidt et al. (1994) concluded that
the Disgust Scale is best conceptualized as a measure of general
sensitivity to disgust rather than a robust, multidimensional mea-
sure. Despite this, the subdomains are often treated as if they were
empirically and theoretically distinct (e.g., Calder, Keane, Manes,
Antoun, & Young, 2000; Goldenberg et al., 2001; Rozin, Taylor,
Ross, Bennett, & Heimadi, 2005; Troop et al., 2002).
A recent revision of the Disgust Scale (Olatunji et al., 2007)
found that the four items measuring reactions to sexual behaviors
did not covary with the other seven subdomains, and the sexual
domain was subsequently removed. Although disgust is clearly
elicited by moral transgressions and by certain types of sexual acts,
the original Disgust Scale allows only limited inquiry into the
whereas the Disgust Scale—Revised (Disgust
Scale-R; Olatunji et al., 2007) ignores both sexuality and morality
altogether. Thus, there currently is no way of measuring individual
differences across the more varied set of disgust elicitors. In light
of these conceptual and measurement issues, we sought to reex-
amine disgust by looking at its underlying function(s) from an
An Adaptationist View of Disgust
Psychologists who take an adaptationist approach generate test-
able hypotheses regarding human cognition and behavior by con-
sidering the selection pressures that recurred over evolutionary
history (Andrews, Gangestad, & Matthews, 2002; Buss, Haselton,
Shackelford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998; Tooby & Cosmides,
1992). This theoretical framework has proven useful in a variety of
research areas, including mate choice (Bleske-Rechek & Buss,
2006; Gangestad, Garver-Apgar, Simpson, & Cousins, 2007), ag-
gression (Griskevicius et al., 2009), person perception (D. V.
Becker, Kenrick, Neuberg, Blackwell, & Smith, 2007; Cottrell,
Neuberg, & Li, 2007), kin-directed behaviors such as altruism and
sexual avoidance (Ackerman, Kenrick, & Schaller, 2007; Burn-
stein, Crandall, & Kitayama, 1994; Lieberman, Tooby, & Cos-
mides, 2003, 2007), perceptual biases (Haselton & Funder, 2006;
Maner et al., 2005), social stigma (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Neu-
berg, Smith, & Asher, 2000; Schaller & Neuberg, 2008), cultural
variability (Fincher, Thornhill, Murray, & Schaller, 2008; Gang-
estad, Haselton, & Buss, 2006; Schaller & Murray, 2008), and
behaviors ranging from conformity (Griskevicius, Goldstein,
Mortensen, Cialdini, & Kenrick, 2006) to consumer spending
(Griskevicius et al., 2007; G. F. Miller, Tybur, & Jordan, 2007).
Importantly, the adaptationist perspective has also proven useful in
the study of emotions (see Cosmides & Tooby, 2000; Keltner,
Haidt, & Shiota, 2006; Ohman & Mineka, 2001; Pinker, 1997).
Given the cross-cultural universality of disgust (Ekman, 1972) and
its role in domains related to survival (e.g., disease avoidance) and
reproduction (e.g., sexual behaviors), an adaptationist perspective
is highly appropriate for studying the emotion.
We propose that, rather than serving abstract functions re-
lated to protecting the soul or avoiding reminders of our animal
nature, disgust evolved to motivate behavioral solutions to
multiple distinct adaptive problems: avoiding substances asso-
ciated with disease-causing agents in ancestral environments
(Curtis, Aunger, & Rabie, 2004; Curtis & Biran, 2001; Fessler,
Eng, & Navarrete, 2005; Haidt et al., 1997), avoiding sexual
partners and behaviors that would reduce one’s long-term re-
productive success (Fessler & Navarrete, 2003, 2004), and
avoiding individuals who inflict social costs on oneself or
members of one’s social network (see Levine & Kurzban,
2006). We briefly discuss each of the proposed adaptive func-
tions of disgust in turn.
Infectious microorganisms were a recurring feature of human
ancestral environments and posed a constant threat to survival and
reproduction (Maynard Smith, 1978; Tooby, 1982). For this rea-
son, selection would have favored mechanisms that protected
against the fitness costs associated with infectious agents. In ad-
dition to a complex and robust physiological immune system that
functions to attack pathogens in the event they enter the body
(Delves, Martin, Burton, & Roitt, 2006), selection also engineered
pathogen disgust, a first line of defense that functions as a “be-
havioral immune system” preventing contact with and ingestion of
pathogens (Schaller, 2006; Schaller & Duncan, 2007).
That disgust is related to pathogens is, of course, not a novel
idea (e.g., see Angyal, 1941; Haidt et al., 1997; Rozin & Fallon,
1987). However, in line with other researchers, we posit that
pathogen disgust evolved specifically to serve the function of
pathogen avoidance (Curtis et al., 2004; Curtis & Biran, 2001;
Fessler & Navarrete, 2003; Marzillier & Davey, 2004; Pinker,
1997). Pathogen disgust is elicited by objects likely to contain
infectious agents, including dead bodies, rotting foods, and bodily
fluids such as feces, phlegm, vomit, blood, and semen, and it
motivates proximal avoidance of such things. Pathogen disgust is
also elicited by stimuli emitting the same visual, olfactory, tactile,
or auditory cues that reliably indicated pathogen presence in our
ancestral past, even when an item possessing such cues may be
devoid of infectious agents (e.g., plastic imitation vomit or fudge
shaped to look like feces; Rozin et al., 1986).
In sum, pathogens constituted an intense selection pressure,
leading to the evolution of information processing systems de-
signed to detect infectious microorganisms and motivate their
avoidance. Revisiting the multiple categories of disgust elicitors
suggested by Haidt et al. (1994), it is evident that they capture a
variety of sources of disease-causing agents. For instance, foods,
animals, and body products— core disgust elicitors—are all poten-
tially infectious. Similarly, three of the four elicitors of animal
reminder disgust (dead bodies, individuals with poor hygiene, and
body envelope violations) are also sources of contagion— even
objectively noninfectious objects conceptualized within the animal
The sexual items in the Disgust Scale have questionable construct
validity. For example, two of the four items measuring sexual disgust ask
participants to note true or false to items involving moral judgments: “I
think homosexual activities are immoral” and “I think it is immoral for
people to seek sexual pleasure from animals.” The strength of the relation
between moral judgment of homosexuality and bestiality and disgust
toward those acts has not been established, leaving it uncertain whether
these items measure a disgust response.
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
reminder domain (e.g., amputated limbs, congenital deformities)
elicit a disease-avoidance response (Haselton & Nettle, 2006;
Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Park, Faulkner, & Schaller, 2003;
Schaller & Duncan, 2007). What were originally viewed as inde-
pendent categories of disgust elicitors are more parsimoniously
explained as related disgust elicitors within a broader domain of
pathogen disgust. Sex, however, the fourth elicitor of animal
reminder disgust, does not exclusively pertain to proximate patho-
gen avoidance. Rather, it addresses a separate adaptive problem:
avoiding sexual partners and behaviors imposing net reproductive
The relationship between sexuality and disgust has long been
recognized (e.g., Angyal, 1941). For instance, disgust has been
identified as a reaction to unwanted sexual contact (Tomkins,
1963), as the antithesis of sexual arousal (Koukounas & McCabe,
1997; Vonderheide & Mosher, 1988), and as the prototypical
response when individuals are asked to imagine sex with close
genetic relatives (Ackerman et al., 2007; Fessler & Navarrete,
2004; Haidt, 2001; Lieberman et al., 2007; Westermarck, 1891/
1921). Indeed, sexual acts are a specific category of disgust elic-
itors under the model of disgust proposed by Rozin and colleagues
(e.g., Haidt et al., 1994). However, in contrast to the animal
reminder perspective, which suggests that sexual disgust evolved
to protect us from recognizing that we are animals (Goldenberg et
al., 2000, 2001; Haidt et al., 1994; Rozin et al., 2000), we suggest
that sexual disgust is an evolved solution to the adaptive problem
of avoiding biologically costly mates and sexual behaviors (see
also Fessler & Navarrete, 2003).
Over evolutionary history, one’s choice of sexual partners and
behaviors carried significant reproductive consequences because
individuals varied in qualities impacting offspring survival and
reproduction. Whereas certain sexual partners increased the prob-
ability of producing multiple, healthy offspring, others potentially
jeopardized one’s reproductive success. Given this selection pres-
sure, natural selection likely favored mechanisms that were able to
evaluate potential partners along dimensions relevant to reproduc-
tive success and systems that motivated pursuit (e.g., lust) or
avoidance (e.g., disgust) accordingly.
Importantly, potential sexual partners can vary in quality along
two broad dimensions: intrinsic quality and genetic compatibility
(Jennions & Petrie, 2000; Neff & Pitcher, 2005). A mate’s intrinsic
quality is reflected in features that influence objective physical
attractiveness, regardless of genetic compatibility. Such features
include body symmetry, facial attractiveness, and body shape—
dimensions that men and women use to assess attractiveness (e.g.,
Grammer, Fink, Møller, & Thornhill, 2003; Singh, 1993; Thornhill
& Gangestad, 1993, 2006).
Genetic compatibility affects mate suitability in a more relative
manner. A potential partner’s genetic similarity to oneself—rather
than intrinsically low genetic quality— can reduce reproductive
success. Compatibility can be influenced by factors such as major
histocompatibility complex similarity (Penn & Potts, 1999) and
genetic relatedness. For instance, though one’s close kin (e.g.,
siblings, parents, offspring) might possess many attributes desir-
able in a mate (e.g., have high intrinsic mate quality), they are not
suitable mating partners because close inbreeding increases the
probability of producing less healthy offspring (Bittles & Neel,
1994; Charlesworth & Charlesworth, 1999; Haig, 1999).
Individuals displaying cues for low intrinsic quality or low
compatibility are likely to be poor mate choices and should thus be
avoided as sexual partners. Disgust is an emotion well suited to
perform this function (Lieberman, 2006). The disgust that moti-
vates sexual avoidance, however, is distinct from the disgust
motivating pathogen avoidance, not only with respect to the sets of
information required to assess mate suitability versus infection
risk, but also in regards to the nature of the optimal avoidance
behaviors. Whereas pathogen detection relies on cues such as pus
and foul odor, the assessment of mate suitability depends on a host
of other cues described above—many of which are not relevant to
proximal pathogen avoidance (e.g., seeing one’s mother care for a
newborn, a cue to siblingship; Lieberman et al., 2007). Further,
whereas individuals and objects displaying cues of communicable
infection should motivate general avoidance, an individual deemed
an unsuitable mating partner should motivate avoidance specifi-
cally within the context of mating, leaving open the possibility for
other categories of social interactions (e.g., nepotism, friendship,
social exchange, or group membership).
In sum, avoiding sexual partners and behaviors potentially jeop-
ardizing one’s reproductive success constitutes a separate adaptive
problem from pathogen avoidance and requires different systems
for assessing the risks associated with sex. Sexual disgust, we
argue, is specifically well suited to perform the function of avoid-
ing reproductively costly sexual behaviors, narrowing the pool of
sexual behaviors and partners to those likely to contribute to the
production of healthy viable offspring.
A third domain of disgust pertains to social transgressions.
When asked to generate a list of things that disgust them, people
often report antisocial behaviors alongside items and acts that we
would categorize as elicitors of pathogen or sexual disgust (Haidt
et al., 1994; Nabi, 2002). These social transgressions broadly
include nonnormative, often antisocial activities such as lying,
cheating, and stealing that harm others directly and/or impose
diffuse costs on one’s social group. For example, a sample of
Australian psychology students who read vignettes about crimes
involving drug trafficking, conning, fraud, or theft were more
likely than control participants to form disgust words in a word-
stem completion task (Jones & Fitness, 2008). This association
between such antisocial behaviors and disgust is not exclusive to
Western, English-speaking cultures. Haidt et al. (1997) reported
that, when asked to generate a list of disgust elicitors, a Hebrew-
speaking woman from Israel cited politicians, a Japanese-speaking
student from Hiroshima cited verbal abuse, and an English-
speaking student from Chicago cited child abuse.
However, some have argued that the term disgust is used to
describe social transgressions merely for greater rhetorical ef-
fect and that actual responses to such acts may not be related to
disgust at all (e.g., Bloom, 2004; Nabi, 2002). This hypothesis
can be tested by examining whether pathogen-related acts and
common socio-moral violations such as lying, cheating, and
stealing activate common neural regions associated with the
emotion disgust. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) investigations show they do (Moll et al., 2005; Schaich
106 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
Borg, Lieberman, & Kiehl, 2008). For instance, in Schaich Borg
et al. (2008), conjunction analyses revealed that pathogen-
related acts, incestuous acts, and socio-moral violations all
activate a network of brain regions previously reported to be
associated with disgust (e.g., the globis pallidus, putamen,
caudate head, and amygdala). Behavioral studies also indicate
disgust is linked with moral judgments (e.g., Marzillier &
Davey, 2004; Wheatley & Haidt, 2005), further suggesting that
disgust is not just used metaphorically or rhetorically to de-
scribe social transgressions, but instead reflects a response
toward multiple elicitors including infection, incest, and iniq-
From an evolutionary perspective, avoiding interactions with
other individuals who imposed costs on oneself or on members of
one’s social network would have been beneficial. Within the social
arena, other individuals are capable of inflicting costs in a number
of ways; in addition to lying, cheating, and stealing, group mem-
bers can injure, kill, rape, free ride, denigrate, and cuckold. Such
behaviors inflict costs directly, and they can disrupt cooperative
relationships, social networks, and group cohesion (Cottrell &
Neuberg, 2005). Individuals capable of avoiding those whose
actions regularly registered as large net costs would have fared
better than those who did not discriminate along this dimension.
In addition to being elicited by different cues than pathogen and
sexual disgust, moral disgust motivates a different behavioral
strategy. Whereas pathogen disgust motivates proximal avoidance
of perceived infection risks and sexual disgust motivates avoid-
ance of individuals within the specific context of sexual interac-
tions, moral disgust motivates avoidance of social relationships
with norm-violating individuals. As recent research indicates,
moral disgust might also underlie motivations to punish norm-
violating third parties (e.g., Kurzban, DeScioli, & O’Brien, 2007).
Overview of Current Studies
An adaptationist perspective predicts the existence of three
functional domains of disgust, each of which addresses a unique
set of adaptive problems. This organization is distinct from previ-
ous conceptions and has direct implications for studying individual
differences in disgust sensitivity. As mentioned previously, we
suspect that the measure developed by Haidt et al. (1994) largely
measures sensitivity to pathogen disgust but does not adequately
consider individual differences in sexual or moral disgust. Indeed,
there is currently no measure of disgust that captures the functional
heterogeneity of this emotion. Here we aim to fill this gap.
Across four studies, we investigate individual differences in
sensitivity to pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust. Studies 1 and 2
use factor analytic techniques to see if a wide array of disgust
elicitors categorize into these domains. Both studies establish that
a wide array of disgust elicitors can be empirically categorized into
domains of pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust and that system-
atic sex differences exist across domains in a manner consistent
with our framework. In Study 2, we further provide evidence for
discriminant and convergent validation in relation to other person-
ality constructs. Specifically we examine the relationship between
pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust and psychopathy, perceived
vulnerability to disease, and the Big Five personality traits, each of
which is predicted to relate to specific disgust domains. Study 3
uses confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to see if the factor struc-
ture observed in Studies 1 and 2 replicates in a more diverse,
nonuniversity sample. Finally, Study 4 introduces the Three-
Domain Disgust Scale and uses structural regression analyses to
contrast our three-domain measure with that developed by Haidt et
al. (1994) and modified by Olatunji et al. (2007).
The first study investigated the factor structure of disgust re-
sponses to a wide range of potentially disgusting objects, behav-
iors, and situations. Based on our theoretical model, we predicted
that individual differences would covary along three dimensions
reflecting sensitivity to pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust. The
first study also tested a theoretically derived prediction concerning
domain-specific sex differences in disgust sensitivity.
Previous research has found that women are generally more
sensitive to disgust than men (Curtis et al., 2004; Druschel &
Sherman, 1999; Haidt et al., 1994). Based on our theoretical
model, however, we predicted that sex differences in disgust
sensitivity should vary across domains. Specifically, we predicted
that the largest sex difference would be found in the sexual
domain. This prediction stems from a consideration of the different
costs associated with sexual reproduction for men and women
(Trivers, 1972). Whereas sex for men generally does not preclude
immediate future reproductive success, sex for women potentially
does, given women’s 9-month gestation period and subsequent
lactation commitment. Also, sexual activities place women at
greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases (Varghese, Maher,
Peterman, Branson, & Steketee, 2001) and reputational damage
than men (Buss, 1989; Dickemann, 1981). Because women paid
such higher costs for poor sexual choices across evolutionary
history, they should thus be much more avoidant of (and hence
more disgusted by) a variety of sexual behaviors. Consistent with
this prediction, women are on average much less open than men to
short-term sex (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000) and sex with strang-
ers (Clark & Hatfield, 1989), whose intrinsic quality and compat-
ibility may be difficult to assess at first glance. In line with
previous findings, we also predicted a moderate sex difference in
pathogen disgust but did not expect this difference to be as robust
as the sex difference for sexual disgust, given that men and women
faced more similar selection pressures regarding pathogens. Also,
given similar selection pressure between the sexes, we did not
expect strong sex difference in the moral domain.
Participants and procedures. One-hundred-sixty undergradu-
ate psychology students (109 women, 51 men) at a major univer-
sity completed a paper-and-pencil survey in exchange for course
credit. Participant age (M⫽21.69 years, SD ⫽3.68) was typical
for this type of sample.
Measures. We modeled our item-generation procedures after
the methods described by Haidt et al. (1994) in their generation of
the original Disgust Scale. Specifically, we asked a group of 14
individuals (4 undergraduate students, 5 graduate students, and 5
psychology professors) to each list up to 15 things they found
disgusting. This group was composed of individuals that varied in
sex, ethnicity, and age, and all of the individuals were blind to our
hypotheses. To gather a sufficient pool of items to test our hy-
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
potheses, we asked that the nominated items reflect a variety of
acts that people might consider “disgusting” in any way, including
issues related to sexuality and morality. In total, 105 items were
generated. We examined the nominated items and eliminated ones
that were redundant (e.g., multiple people selecting “poop”; items
related to feces or vomit were nominated by nearly every individ-
ual), too extreme to yield meaningful variation on a self-report
measure (e.g., “drinking vomit,” “swallowing someone else’s
blood”), or too specialized to the individuals who nominated the
items (e.g., local locations and political figures). This careful
process of elimination led us to eliminate 47 of the nominated
items, leaving a total of 58 items to be included in Study 1.
The items covered a wide range of topics, including domains
that would be categorized under the Rozin et al. (2000) model as
core disgust (e.g., “seeing mold on some leftovers in your refrig-
erator”), interpersonal disgust (e.g., “touching a stranger’s feet”),
and each elicitor of animal reminder disgust, including sex (e.g.,
“hearing two strangers having sex”), death (e.g., “touching a dead
body”), envelope violations (e.g., “seeing someone’s bone sticking
out of their leg”), and hygiene (e.g., “standing next to someone on
the bus who has strong body odor”). Items also included theft (e.g.,
“stealing from a neighbor”), specific sexual acts (e.g., “having anal
sex with someone of the opposite sex”), dishonesty (e.g., “a
student cheating to get good grades”), promiscuity (e.g., “bringing
someone you just met back to your room to have sex knowing you
will never see them again”), nonreciprocity (e.g., “a member of a
work group choosing not to contribute anything but sharing
equally in all the benefits”), and sexual partner choice (e.g., “an
opposite-sex stranger intentionally rubbing your thigh in an ele-
vator”). Participants were asked to rate the degree to which they
felt each item was disgusting on a 7-point Likert-type scale with
anchors labeled not disgusting at all (0) and extremely dis-
Despite the presence of multiple acts mapping onto multiple
domains proposed by Rozin et al. (2000; e.g., core disgust, animal
reminder disgust, and interpersonal disgust), we predicted the
emergence of three factors that mapped onto pathogen disgust,
sexual disgust, and moral disgust.
Factor structure of disgust sensitivity. We conducted all anal-
yses for Studies 1 and 2 using SPSS 14.0. We identified covarying
groups of items using factor analysis. Because factor analytic
results can be distorted by violations of normality among individ-
ual items (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007), 10 items with skewness or
kurtosis that exceeded |2| were excluded from the analysis.
principal-axis factor analysis was conducted on the remaining 48
items. The Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin measure of sampling adequacy
was .84, indicating that the individual items shared a sufficient
amount of common variance for such an analysis.
The first 10 eigenvalues were 11.29, 4.92, 2.59, 1.98, 1.64, 1.61,
1.53, 1.33, 1.28, and 1.22. We used two criteria to determine how
many factors to extract: a visual scree test (Cattell, 1966), which
involves examining the scree plot for the point at which a line
drawn through eigenvalues changes slope, and a parallel analysis
(Horn, 1965), which involves comparing observed eigenvalues to
those obtained from factor analyses on several samples of random
data of the same number of variables and cases as the observed
data. The number of observed eigenvalues exceeding the 95th
percentile of simulated eigenvalues is taken as the appropriate
number of factors to extract. To conduct the parallel analyses, we
used procedures developed by O’Connor (2000) and ran 5,000
simulations of sets of random data with 160 cases and 48 variables.
Only the top 3 eigenvalues from our factor analysis were greater
than the 95th percentile of the eigenvalues from the random
simulation, suggesting that three factors be extracted. However,
the visual scree test was unclear; it suggested that either three or
four factors be extracted. In the event that the number of factors to
be extracted is unclear, it is appropriate to extract and rotate
multiple solutions and examine item loadings to determine which
solution is most appropriate (Gorsuch, 1983).
Accordingly, we first extracted and rotated four factors using
direct oblimin criteria to allow for correlated factors. The first
three factors were readily interpretable, appearing to reflect moral
disgust (the three highest loading items being “stealing bank
account information online,” “forging another person’s signature
on a legal document,” and “a mechanic overcharging elderly
people”), pathogen disgust (the three highest loading items being
“stepping in a large pile of dog poop,” “sitting next to someone
with open red sores on their arm,” and “accidentally touching
someone’s bloody cut”), and sexual disgust (the three highest
loading items being “bringing someone back to your room to have
sex, knowing you will never see them again,” “watching pornog-
raphy,” and “hearing two strangers having sex”). However, the
fourth factor did not appear to be conceptually cohesive: only one
item loaded on it above .5 (“having sex with someone with Down’s
syndrome”), one other item loaded on it above .4 (“seeing some-
one’s bone sticking out of their leg”), and two other items loaded
on it above .3 (“being hit on by an attractive individual of the same
sex” and “seeing a 25-year-old man and a 65-year-old woman out
on a date”).
A three-factor solution was then rotated using direct oblimin
criteria, and the factor structure appeared to straightforwardly
reflect sensitivity to pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust. The
pattern matrix indicated that only 2 of the 48 items failed to load
at least .3 on any of the three factors. The remaining 46 items
loaded at least .3 on one and only one factor. Importantly, item
loadings were consistent with the predicted three-factor structure:
The first factor was related to pathogen disgust, the second factor
was related to sexual disgust, and the third factor was related to
moral disgust (see Table 1 for items and factor loadings). Given
that the interpretation of these three factors was consistent across
both three-factor and four-factor extractions, and the four-factor
solution included a theoretically ambiguous factor with diffuse
item loadings, we proceeded with a three-factor extraction.
The pathogen factor was correlated with the sex factor (r⫽.41)
and the moral factor (r⫽.30), and the sex and moral factors were
Notably, items related to incestuous acts (e.g., hearing about an adult
brother and sister who like having sex with each other) were among the 10
excluded due to extreme nonnormality. Although such items are hypoth-
esized to elicit specifically sexual disgust, the extreme, nearly universal
disgust reactions to such items render them poor candidates for measure-
ment of individual differences on a self-report measure (see Lieberman et
al., 2007, for a discussion of individual differences in attitudes toward
108 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
Items and Factor Loadings for Studies 1 and 2
Pathogen Sexual Moral
Study 1 Study 2 Study 1 Study 2 Study 1 Study 2
Accidentally touching someone’s bloody cut .71 .63 ⫺.09 ⫺.13 .04 .03
Sitting next to someone with open red sores on their arm .70 .48 ⫺.23 .03 .08 .19
Shaking hands with a stranger who has sweaty palms .66 .57 ⫺.06 .08 .08 ⫺.03
Stepping in a large pile of dog poop .66 .45 .05 .01 ⫺.02 .13
Standing next to someone on the bus who has strong
body odor .58 .58 .02 ⫺.02 ⫺.03 .16
Seeing mold on some leftovers in your refrigerator .58 .43 ⫺.03 .11 ⫺.03 .09
Seeing someone pick their nose .52 .23 .17 .24 ⫺.02 .25
Finding a hair in your food .47 .36 .12 .11 ⫺.04 .31
Seeing someone’s bone sticking out of their leg .45 .53 ⫺.01 ⫺.03 .04 ⫺.13
Touching a stranger’s feet .42 .48 .15 .12 .11 .02
Eating a cracker that has fallen on the ground outside .40 .36 .15 .16 .17 .18
Seeing a 25-year-old man and a 65-year-old woman out
on a date .40 .33 .11 .33 .19 ⫺.04
Touching a dead body .37 .49 .05 .16 ⫺.01 ⫺.11
Kissing someone you find physically unattractive .35 .42 .20 .04 ⫺.06 ⫺.02
Smelling that the milk you are about to drink is slightly
spoiled .35 .39 .08 .13 ⫺.03 .04
Having sex with someone with Down’s syndrome .32 .48 ⫺.07 ⫺.04 .01 ⫺.04
Hearing someone vomit .29 .31 .13 .29 ⫺.17 .03
Bringing someone you just met back to your room to
have sex knowing you will never see them again ⫺.10 ⫺.02 .80 .61 .10 .09
Watching pornography .00 ⫺.09 .64 .82 ⫺.04 .00
An opposite-sex stranger touching your thigh in an
elevator ⫺.03 ⫺.06 .57 .41 .03 .14
Hearing two strangers having sex .16 .01 .53 .67 ⫺.08 .04
Walking into a changing room and accidentally seeing
someone your age of the opposite sex naked .06 ⫺.03 .52 .60 .17 ⫺.05
Having anal sex with someone of the opposite sex .12 .04 .49 .57 ⫺.05 ⫺.01
Having sex in exchange for money .03 .11 .48 .42 .20 .33
Finding out that someone you don’t like has sexual
fantasies about you .20 .19 .45 .41 .14 .02
Going to a nude beach .21 ⫺.01 .42 .73 .13 ⫺.05
You having sex with a person 30 years older than you .39 .27 .16 .39 .07 .03
Having sex with your sweaty partner after they worked
out for an hour .32 .24 .10 .43 .20 ⫺.15
Having sex while you (or your partner) have their period .35 .16 .17 .35 .05 ⫺.03
A woman terminating her pregnancy .01 .03 .04 .42 .32 .10
Being hit on by an attractive individual of the same sex .18 .12 .28 .28 .11 ⫺.05
Stealing bank account information online ⫺.16 .08 ⫺.03 ⫺.12 .91 .71
Forging another person’s signature on a legal document ⫺.08 ⫺.05 ⫺.06 .20 .83 .59
A mechanic overcharging elderly people ⫺.04 .14 .00 ⫺.22 .82 .72
Cutting to the front of the line to purchase the last four
tickets of a show ⫺.07 ⫺.12 .02 ⫺.02 .78 .47
A student cheating to get good grades ⫺.13 ⫺.08 .13 .19 .77 .53
Selling illegal drugs ⫺.17 ⫺.07 .24 .38 .72 .47
Intentionally lying during a business transaction .07 ⫺.06 ⫺.07 .08 .71 .61
A business owner making a very high salary but keeping
his employees at minimum wage ⫺.01 .23 .07 ⫺.17 .71 .45
A member of a work group choosing not to contribute
anything but sharing equally in all the benefits ⫺.01 .10 ⫺.06 ⫺.18 .69 .42
Stealing from a neighbor .04 ⫺.09 .12 .08 .62 .62
Someone who is addicted to pill drugs .02 .09 .07 .26 .58 .43
Someone who is addicted to IV drugs .05 .21 .08 .18 .50 .42
A parent ignoring their crying child .19 .21 ⫺.10 .06 .47 .38
Wishing one’s spouse was dead .17 .07 ⫺.10 .09 .44 .43
Thinking of cheating on a long-term romantic partner ⫺.20 ⫺.11 .06 .12 .39 .45
A poor couple selling their child to a rich couple .21 .14 ⫺.13 .22 .39 .16
Illegal immigrant workers .19 .04 .06 .15 .37 .08
Note. Factor loadings above .40 are bolded.
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
correlated (r⫽.26). Factor scores were calculated using a regres-
Sex differences across factors. A 3 (disgust factor: within
subjects) ⫻2 (participant sex: between subjects) analysis of vari-
ance (ANOVA) on disgust sensitivity scores yielded an interaction
between disgust domain and participant sex, F(2, 157) ⫽13.56,
p⬍.001. Although women scored higher than men on disgust
sensitivity across all three factors, this sex difference varied sub-
stantially across domains (sex difference, measured in Cohen’s d,
for pathogen ⫽0.32, sexual ⫽1.07, moral ⫽0.32). Consistent
with predictions, planned contrasts of the interaction demonstrated
that the sex difference in disgust sensitivity was similar across the
pathogen and moral domains, t(158) ⫽0.09, p⫽.93, but was
greater for the sexual domain than the other two, t(158) ⫽5.20,
p⬍.001. These sex differences were large across the nine items
that loaded .3 or above on the sexual disgust factor. Of these items,
all but two (“going to a nude beach,” d⫽0.28, and “hearing two
strangers have sex,” d⫽0.38) had Cohen’s ds of 0.60 or above. Of
the remaining seven items, the smallest sex difference (“watching
pornography,” d⫽0.60) was greater than the sex difference for 32
of the 33 items that loaded above .3 on the pathogen and moral
factors, with the exception being “finding a hair in your food” (d⫽
A factor analysis suggested that disgust reactions to a wide and
varied array of concepts can be empirically categorized into do-
mains related to pathogens, sexuality, and morality. Items used in
the analysis encompassed a broad range of objects, behaviors, and
situations within each domain. For example, the pathogen factor
included concepts that, under the model suggested by Rozin et al.
(2000), could be categorized as core disgust, animal reminder
disgust, or interpersonal disgust. Items on the moral factor in-
cluded behaviors related to theft, dishonesty, and nonreciprocity,
and items on the sexual factor included behaviors related to pro-
miscuity, specific sexual acts, and partner choice.
Although a number of outcomes could have emerged in our
factor analysis (a single general disgust factor; a social and a
nonsocial factor; factors mapping onto domains of core disgust,
animal reminder disgust, and interpersonal disgust, etc.), we found
that the majority of items loaded onto one and only one of the three
factors predicted by our theoretical model. This raises the question
of why we found this pattern whereas previous research using the
Disgust Scale and Disgust Scale-R has shown that other domains,
such as animal reminder disgust, appear in data analyses.
Methodological differences may contribute to these different
results. For example, the majority of items used in the animal
reminder domain of the Disgust Scale-R do not directly ask par-
ticipants about disgust. Instead, many items ask participants to
indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements
that can be characterized as creepy and uncanny (e.g., “I would go
out of my way to avoid walking through a graveyard”; “it would
bother me to sleep in a nice hotel room if I knew that a man had
died of a heart attack in that room the night before”; “it would not
upset me at all to watch a person with a glass eye take the eye out
of the socket”; “it would bother me to be in a science class, and to
see a human hand preserved in a jar”; “it would bother me
tremendously to touch a dead body”). Although the creepiness felt
toward walking through a graveyard or sleeping in the bed previ-
ously occupied by a heart attack victim may share some phenom-
enological similarity with disgust, these questions do not directly
measure a disgust response. Instead, they ask about the degree to
which one is bothered or upset by a particular act, making it
unclear whether the emotion being measured is disgust or some-
thing else (e.g., sadness, fear, anger, surprise). In our study, all
items directly concern disgust, thus rendering the construct repre-
sented in our measure more straightforwardly interpretable as
sensitivity to disgust.
Consistent with past research on individual differences in dis-
gust sensitivity, women reported stronger disgust responses than
men across domains. However, in line with the logic of an adap-
tationist perspective, this sex difference was by far the strongest in
the sexual domain. Whereas the sex differences in the pathogen
and moral domains were by convention small, the sex difference in
the sexual domain was very large. This large effect likely exists
because women pay higher biological costs (e.g., time and energy
costs, sexually transmitted disease risks, pregnancy risks) than
men for making sexual “mistakes”—that is, choosing sexual part-
ners and behaviors that jeopardize the risk of producing healthy
offspring (Trivers, 1972)—and should be more motivated than
men to avoid such encounters. Our data demonstrate that women
indeed find specifically sexual concepts especially more disgusting
than do men. In concert with factor analytic results, the varied
strength of the sex difference in disgust sensitivity across domains
further demonstrates that sexual disgust is distinct from pathogen
and moral disgust.
Study 1 provided initial support for the distinctiveness of patho-
gen, sexual, and moral disgust. We sought to further explore the
differentiability of these three factors in Study 2. Specifically, we
predicted that the factors identified in Study 1 would show differ-
ent relationships with other validated constructs, including the
Primary psychopathy is a continuous dimension reflecting a lack
of concern with others’ welfare and a willingness to achieve goals
via antisocial behaviors such as lying and cheating (M. R. Leven-
son, Kiehl, & Fitzpatrick, 1995). Given that morals can be viewed
as a set of rules designed to maintain social cohesion within groups
(Baumeister & Exline, 1999), we predicted that sensitivity to
moral disgust would be negatively related to primary psychopathy.
That is, individuals who report greater antisocial attitudes should
be less sensitive to moral disgust. Also, given that nonnormative
sexuality is often morally censured (Lieberman et al., 2003), we
predicted that primary psychopathy would also be negatively re-
lated to sensitivity to sexual disgust. Indeed, sexual promiscuity is
one characteristic of psychopathy (Hare, 1991). However, given
that primary psychopathy impacts aspects of sociality (e.g., anti-
social personality traits and behaviors), and moral judgments and
mate choice come under this umbrella whereas pathogen avoid-
ance (at least as relates to blood, guts, and gore) does not, we did
not expect a significant relationship between pathogen disgust and
110 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
Perceived Vulnerability to Disease
Individuals differ in their perceived vulnerability to disease
(PVD; Faulkner, Schaller, Park, & Duncan, 2004). In its initial
development, the PVD scale was found to relate to the original
Disgust Scale. From our theoretical perspective, PVD should pos-
itively correlate with sensitivity to pathogen disgust, because both
constructs are related to disease avoidance and because of the
conceptual overlap between pathogen disgust and the Disgust
Scale. Further, sensitivity to sexual disgust should also be related
to PVD given the potential disease risks associated with sex and
the roles that assessments of health and pathogen presence play in
mate choice. However, moral disgust is not related to avoiding
pathogen threats and should not be related to PVD.
Big Five Personality Traits
In contrast with our inclusion of measures of psychopathy and
PVD, which were motivated by a priori hypotheses, our motiva-
tions for including a measure of Big Five personality dimensions
were more exploratory. In their development of the Disgust Scale,
Haidt et al. (1994) found disgust sensitivity to relate positively to
neuroticism. Our theoretical perspective suggests that the Disgust
Scale considers sensitivity to pathogen disgust, but not sexual
disgust or moral disgust. For this reason, we predicted that patho-
gen disgust (but not necessarily sexual or moral disgust) should be
positively related to neuroticism. Further, given the domains’
functional specificity, we expected that the three domains would
show unique patterns of relations with Big Five dimensions. For
example, agreeableness is a social attribute and may relate to moral
and sexual disgust but not to pathogen disgust.
Participants and procedures. Three hundred undergraduate
psychology students (168 women, 132 men) at a major university
geographically different from that in Study 1 participated in the
study. Participant age (M⫽20.25 years, SD ⫽3.82) was similar
to that in Study 1. Participants completed the survey online at their
own convenience in exchange for course credit.
Measures. Because we wanted to replicate the sex differences
and the factor analysis results from Study 1, participants rated their
disgust responses to the same 48 items used in Study 1. They also
completed the PVD scale (Faulkner et al., 2004), the Primary
Psychopathy Scale (M. R. Levenson et al., 1995), and the Big Five
Inventory (BFI; Benet-Martinez & John, 1998).
Factor structure of disgust sensitivity. We factor analyzed the
48 disgust items using the same procedures detailed in Study 1 (see
Table 1 for items and factor loadings), and the first 10 eigenvalues
were 10.55, 3.63, 2.74, 1.91, 1.63, 1.44, 1.38, 1.32, 1.18, and 1.11.
Again, we used a visual scree test and a parallel analysis (consist-
ing of 5,000 simulations of random data with 300 cases and 48
variables) to determine the number of factors to extract. The visual
scree test suggested that three factors be extracted. However, the
parallel analysis indicated that the first 4 eigenvalues surpassed the
95th percentile of the simulated eigenvalues, suggesting that four
factors be extracted. Given the conflicting results between the two
criteria, we extracted and rotated obliquely three-factor and four-
factor solutions and examined item loadings on each pattern matrix
to determine which solution was most appropriate.
As in Study 1, a four-factor solution straightforwardly indicated
a pathogen factor (the three highest loading items being “acciden-
tally touching someone’s bloody cut,” “standing next to someone
on the bus who has strong body odor,” “shaking hands with a
stranger who has sweaty palms”), a sexual factor (the three highest
loading items being “watching pornography,” “going to a nude
beach,” “having anal sex with someone of the opposite sex”), a
moral factor (the three highest loading items being “a mechanic
overcharging elderly people,” “stealing bank account information
online,” “stealing from a neighbor”), and a fourth factor that was
characterized by only a few items with diffuse loadings. For the
fourth factor, only one item loaded uniquely above .5 (“being hit
on by an attractive individual of the same sex”), one other item
loaded uniquely above .4 (“a woman terminating her pregnancy”),
and one other item loaded uniquely above .3 (“illegal immigrant
workers”). Three other items loaded above .3 on this factor
(though none of these items loaded above .4) but had higher
loadings on other factors (“stepping in a large pile of dog poop,”
“someone who is addicted to pill drugs,” “someone who is ad-
dicted to IV drugs”). Importantly, only one item that loaded above
.3 on a fourth factor in Study 1 also loaded above .3 on a fourth
factor in Study 2 (“being hit on by an attractive individual of the
A three-factor solution was highly similar to the first three
factors of a four-factor solution and was highly similar to the three
factors from Study 1 (see Table 1 for item loadings). That is, item
loadings indicated clear pathogen, sexual, and moral factors. All
but four items loaded at least .3 on one of the factors, and of the
remaining 44 items, all but four loaded .3 on only one factor.
Given (a) the similarity between the three-factor solutions in
Studies 1 and 2, (b) the consistency of the pathogen, sexual, and
moral factors across three- and four-factor solutions, (c) the lack of
conceptual cohesiveness of a four-factor solution, (d) the lack of
similarity between the fourth factors across Studies 1 and 2, and (e)
our theoretical framework predicting the existence of these func-
tional domains of disgust, we used the three-factor solution. The
pathogen factor was correlated with the sex factor (r⫽.42) and the
moral factor (r⫽.28), and the sex and moral factors were
correlated (r⫽.28). As in Study 1, factor scores were computed
with a regression estimate.
How the domains relate to primary psychopathy, PVD, and the
Big Five. As detailed in Table 2, zero-order correlations were
used to examine the relationships between the three disgust do-
mains and other relevant constructs. We also used procedures for
testing dependent correlations detailed by Meng, Rosenthal, and
Rubin (1992) to test if the correlations with other constructs
differed significantly between disgust domains.
Both primary psychopathy and PVD differentially related to the
three disgust domains in a manner consistent with our predictions.
Primary psychopathy was negatively related to sensitivity to moral
disgust (r⫽–.38, p⬍.001) and sexual disgust (r⫽–.25, p⬍
.001), but it was not related to sensitivity to pathogen disgust (r⫽
.02, p⫽.75). The relationship with primary psychopathy was
stronger for moral disgust than for sexual disgust (z⫽2.08, p⬍
.05). As predicted, scores of PVD were related to the pathogen
domain (r⫽.26, p⬍.001) and the sexual domain (r⫽.36, p⬍
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
.001) but not the moral domain (r⫽.06, p⫽.31). The correlations
between PVD and disgust sensitivity did not differ significantly
between the sexual and pathogen domains (z⫽1.84, p⫽.07).
In our exploratory analyses, the Big Five traits were differen-
tially related to the three domains of disgust sensitivity (see Table
2 for bivariate correlations). Sensitivity to pathogen disgust was
positively related to neuroticism; sensitivity to sexual disgust was
positively related to conscientiousness and agreeableness and neg-
atively related to openness; and sensitivity to moral disgust was
positively related to extraversion, agreeableness, and conscien-
tiousness. Notably, none of the correlations between disgust sen-
sitivity and Big Five traits surpassed r⫽.23. So although the
distinct relationships between disgust domains and Big Five traits
further demonstrated that the domains are indeed distinct, the
relationships’ modest magnitudes indicate that sensitivity to dis-
gust is unique from any Big Five trait.
Sex differences across factors. A 3 (disgust factor: within
subjects) ⫻2 (participant sex: between subjects) ANOVA on
disgust sensitivity was conducted to replicate the sex differences
observed in Study 1. The analysis indicated an interaction between
disgust domain and participant sex, F(2, 297) ⫽9.70, p⬍.001. As
in Study 1, women on average scored higher than men across
domains (Cohen’s d, for pathogen ⫽0.08, sexual ⫽0.60, moral ⫽
0.29), and the sex difference was especially pronounced on the
sexual domain (see Figure 1). Interaction contrasts again demon-
strated that the sex difference in disgust sensitivity was similar
across the pathogen and moral domains, t(298) ⫽1.59, p⫽.12,
but was greater for the sex domain than the other two, t(298) ⫽
Item loadings offered additional support for the results obtained
in Study 1. Out of a large set of items describing “disgusting”
concepts, reported intensity of disgust responses clustered into
factors of pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust. Similar to Study 1,
we observed the predicted sex difference in factor scores across the
domains, with women’s sensitivity to disgust being especially
greater on the sexual domain compared with the pathogen and
Sensitivity to the three disgust domains differentially related to
other personality constructs in a manner consistent with our pre-
dictions. According to our theoretical model, moral disgust—and
to an extent sexual disgust—relate to how people interact, and they
both demonstrated negative relationships with psychopathic ten-
dencies, although moral disgust was more strongly negatively
related. In contrast, pathogen disgust was not related to psycho-
pathic tendencies. Pathogen disgust and to an extent sexual disgust
function to motivate disease-avoidant behaviors, and they— but
not moral disgust—were indeed related to PVD, the degree to
which individuals feel threatened by disease. These results are
important for two reasons. First, they demonstrate convergent
validity in a manner consistent with our theoretical framework.
Second, they further demonstrate that the domains are distinct.
Sensitivity to sexual disgust, although showing a similar relation-
ship with PVD as sensitivity to pathogen disgust and a similar
relationship with primary psychopathy as sensitivity to moral
disgust, also showed a distinct relationship with PVD from sensi-
tivity to moral disgust and a distinct relationship with primary
psychopathy from sensitivity to pathogen disgust.
The disgust domains also differentially related to the Big Five
personality dimensions. Previous findings have demonstrated that
disgust sensitivity is related to neuroticism (Haidt et al., 1994). Our
perspective contends that previous conceptions of disgust sensi-
tivity as measured by the Disgust Scale have primarily considered
sensitivity to pathogen disgust and that the pathogen domain
specifically should be related to neuroticism. Results confirmed
this prediction: Sensitivity to pathogen disgust— but not sexual or
moral disgust—was related to neuroticism. The differential rela-
tions with the Big Five personality dimensions further demonstrate
that sensitivity to pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust are indeed
Studies 1 and 2 demonstrated that individual differences in
disgust sensitivity can be categorized into domains of pathogen,
sexual, and moral disgust, dissociable in their relationships with
Figure 1. Sex differences in disgust sensitivity are greater on the sexual
domain than the pathogen and moral domains. Cohen’s ds are reported,
with all ds indicating greater sensitivity for women.
Correlations Between Sensitivity to Disgust Domains and Other
Constructs (Study 2)
Disgust sensitivity domain
Pathogen Sexual Moral
Primary psychopathy ⫺.02
Perceived vulnerability to
Extraversion .08 ⫺.02
Note. Bolded correlation coefficients indicate significance at the p⬍.05
level. Subscripts (P ⫽pathogen, S ⫽sexual, M ⫽moral) indicate that the
correlation is significantly different from that with another disgust domain
at the p⬍.05 level. The absence of a subscript indicates that the corre-
lation is not significantly different from that with the other two disgust
112 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
participant sex and other personality constructs. However, these
studies were conducted using samples of undergraduate college
students with a limited range of age, income, geographic location,
and so forth. In Study 3, we sampled adults from every state in the
United States to see if the three disgust domains were dissociable
among a more diverse sample.
Participants and procedures. Participants were recruited
through postings to online classified advertisements in communities
around the United States. In total, 1,118 adults (847 women, 271 men)
participated in the study by completing the survey online. Participant
age was greater than the college samples (M⫽33.64 years) and more
variable (SD ⫽10.91). The sample consisted of participants from all
50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Measures. After examining the 48 items used in Studies 1 and
2, we identified 9 items from each domain that had high factor
loadings across both studies. Hence, we asked participants to
report their disgust reactions to 27 items, 9 from each domain.
Factor structure of disgust sensitivity. Building on the con-
sistent results from in Studies 1 and 2, we used a CFA to
examine model fit. We conducted analyses using EQS 6.1.
First, we examined a measurement model in which all 27 items
were constrained to load on a single factor. This model dem-
onstrated poor fit,
(324, N⫽1,118) ⫽6,458.42, p⬍.01,
confirmatory fit index (CFI) ⫽.49, root-mean-square error of
approximation (RMSEA) ⫽.130, standardized root-mean-
residual (SRMR) ⫽.133, further suggesting that sensitivity to
disgust is not a unitary construct. The subsequently tested
three-factor model demonstrated significantly better fit than the
single-factor model, ⌬
(3, N⫽507) ⫽4,480.33, p⬍.01;
(321, N⫽1,118) ⫽1,978.09, p⬍.01,
CFI ⫽.86, RMSEA ⫽.068, SRMR ⫽.057. For the three-factor
model, item loadings ranged from .49 to .83.
We also conducted a Lagrange Multiplier (LM) test, which
identifies paths not included in the model that would significantly
improve model fit, and a Wald test, which identifies paths included
in the model that can be dropped without reducing model fit. The
LM test did not indicate that any items loaded on multiple factors,
and the Wald test indicated that each item loaded significantly on
its specified factor.
Items were unit weighted to create factor scores. As in Studies
1 and 2, the pathogen factor was positively related to the sex (r⫽
.34) and moral (r⫽.39) factors, and the sex and moral factors
were positively related (r⫽.26). Cronbach’s alpha was high for
each factor (pathogen ⫽.83, sexual ⫽.86, moral ⫽.89).
Compared to cutoffs suggested by Hu and Bentler (1999), the
model demonstrated only marginally good or poor fit. Although the
SRMR indicated good fit relative to the conventional cutoff of .08, the
CFI and RMSEA did not indicate good fit relative to conventional
cutoffs (.95 and .06, respectively). However, given that item-level
multidimensional measures that are otherwise empirically reliable
often fail to meet conventional standards for good fit (Ferrando &
Lorenzo-Seva, 2000; McCrae, Zonderman, Costa, Bond, &
Paunonen, 1996), the combination of a good SRMR, marginal RM-
SEA, moderate to high factor loadings, lack of cross-loadings, and
good internal reliability suggests an acceptable factor structure.
Sex differences in disgust sensitivity. A mixed 3 (disgust fac-
tor: within subjects) ⫻2 (participant sex: between subjects)
ANOVA demonstrated an interaction between sex and disgust
domain, F(2, 1115) ⫽142.42, p⬍.001 (Cohen’s dfor pathogen ⫽
0.17, sexual ⫽1.24, moral ⫽0.04). Simple effect tests indicated
that women were more sensitive to pathogen disgust, t(1116) ⫽
2.44, p⬍.05, and sexual disgust, t(1116) ⫽17.79, p⬍.001, but
the sexes did not differ in sensitivity to moral disgust, t(1116) ⫽
0.63, p⫽.53. Interaction contrasts indicated that the sex differ-
ence was different between each domain at the .05 level. Hence,
the sex different in disgust sensitivity was greater in the sexual
domain than in the pathogen and moral domains (see Figure 1).
This larger, more diverse sample confirmed the three-domain
factor structure observed in undergraduate university students in
Studies 1 and 2. Further, we replicated the sex differences found
previously, whereby there was a much larger sex difference in the
sexual domain than in the other two domains.
Study 4 investigated how our model of disgust empirically relates
to and can be distinguished from the dominant model of disgust
sensitivity proposed by Haidt et al. (1994), which motivated the
creation of the Disgust Scale. Rather than testing how pathogen,
sexual, and moral disgust relate to the eight domains measured in the
original Disgust Scale, we believed a more useful and telling inves-
tigation would compare these three domains with the revised version
of the scale (the Disgust Scale-R; Olatunji et al., 2007), which is
statistically more valid and reliable than the original Disgust Scale.
Despite the use of the original Disgust Scale in over 100 studies, its
psychometric properties were questioned by Olatunji et al. (2007),
who reanalyzed the original 32-item measure and found little evi-
dence for the eight-factor structure under which the Disgust Scale was
originally constructed. After removing seven items with poor factor
loadings—including all four items tapping sexual disgust—they
found the remaining 25-item Disgust Scale-R to consist of three
highly correlated factors. On the basis of conceptual domains pro-
posed by Rozin et al. (2000), Olatunji et al. (2007) described these
factors as measuring sensitivity to core disgust (e.g., “you are about to
drink a glass of milk and smell that it is spoiled”; “you see maggots
on a piece of meat in an outdoor garbage pail”), animal reminder
disgust (e.g., “you see a man with his intestines exposed after an
accident”; “your friend’s pet cat dies and you have to pick up the dead
body with your hands”), and contamination disgust (e.g., “a friend
offers you a piece of chocolate shaped like dog-doo”; “you take a sip
of soda and realize that you drank from the glass that an acquaintance
of yours had been drinking from”). Comparing our measure with the
Disgust Scale-R allows us to see how evolutionarily derived domains
of pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust relate to domains of core,
animal reminder, and contamination disgust. It also allows for some
tests of competing predictions from both models.
From the perspective summarized by Rozin et al. (2000), an
animal reminder domain of disgust functions to motivate people to
reject reminders of their animal origins. The major elicitors of
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
animal reminder disgust include sex, death, hygiene, and envelope
violations. Although this perspective has been echoed multiple
times (e.g., Goldenberg et al., 2000, 2001; Haidt et al., 1994, 1997;
Olatunji, 2008; Olatunji et al., 2007; Rozin & Fallon, 1987) and is
often taken as a core theoretical assumption in modern perspec-
tives on disgust, little empirical evidence supports the claim that
these purported reminders of animality form a single disgust
Our development of a measure of sensitivity to sexual disgust
allows for a critical test of a major assumption of the animal
reminder theory: If sex is truly part of the animal reminder domain,
then sensitivity to sexual disgust should covary strongly with the
animal reminder domain on the Disgust Scale-R. However, if, as
we propose, disgust toward sexual concepts is unrelated to other
purported reminders of animality, sensitivity to sexual disgust
should not covary with the animal reminder domain of the Disgust
Scale-R. Rather, we suggest that all three domains included in the
Disgust Scale-R are strongly related to what we have described as
pathogen disgust. To summarize, we have three clear predictions:
(a) All three domains of the Disgust Scale-R will be highly
correlated; (b) all three of the domains of the Disgust Scale-R will
be strongly related to our measure of pathogen disgust but not to
sexual disgust or moral disgust; and (c) sensitivity to sexual
disgust will be unrelated to the animal reminder domain when
controlling for sensitivity to pathogen disgust.
Participants and procedures. Five-hundred-seven undergrad-
uate psychology students from two major universities (309
women, 198 men) participated in the study in exchange for course
credit. Participant age (M⫽19.63 years, SD ⫽3.02) was consis-
tent with that of previous studies using undergraduate samples.
Measures. Some item pairs from the 27 items used in Study 3
had correlated residual errors. These items were removed, leaving
a 21-item measure—7 items on each domain— of disgust sensi-
tivity. We subsequently refer to this measure as the Three-Domain
Disgust Scale (see Appendix for items). The Three-Domain Dis-
gust Scale was measured on a 7-point (0 to 6) Likert-type scale
with responses anchored with not at all disgusting and extremely
disgusting. Although the Disgust Scale-R has 13 true–false items
(e.g., “if I see someone vomit, it makes me sick to my stomach”) and
12 items on a 3-point response scale of not disgusting,slightly
disgusting, and very disgusting (e.g., “you see someone put ketchup
on vanilla ice cream and eat it”), we measured each item on the same
0 – 6 point scale as the Three-Domain Disgust Scale for this study.
The 13 true–false items were anchored at 0 ⫽strongly disagree and
6⫽strongly agree, and the 12 disgust items were anchored at 0 ⫽not
at all disgusting and 6 ⫽extremely disgusting.
First, measurement models of the Three-Domain Disgust Scale
and Disgust Scale-R were separately examined for fit. The three-
factor structure of the Three-Domain Disgust Scale demonstrated
(186, N⫽507) ⫽635.62, p⬍.01, CFI ⫽.89,
RMSEA ⫽.069, SRMR ⫽.062, with factor loadings ranging from
.52 to .80 (see Table 3 for factor loadings). Cronbach’s alpha was
good for each factor (moral disgust ⫽.84, sexual disgust ⫽.87,
pathogen disgust ⫽.84). Sensitivity to pathogen disgust was
Factor Loadings for the Three-Domain Disgust Scale (Study 4)
Disgust sensitivity domain
Sex difference (Cohen’s d)Pathogen Sexual Moral
Standing close to a person who has body odor .74 ⫺.06
Shaking hands with a stranger who has sweaty palms .73 .10
Stepping on dog poop .67 .10
Accidentally touching a person’s bloody cut .66 .15
Seeing some mold on old leftovers in your refrigerator .64 .00
Sitting next to someone who has red sores on their arm .62 ⫺.09
Seeing a cockroach run across the floor .52 .52
Bringing someone you just met back to your room to have sex .80 1.51
Watching a pornographic video .79 .94
A stranger of the opposite sex intentionally rubbing your thigh in an elevator .71 1.83
Having anal sex with someone of the opposite sex .70 1.00
Hearing two strangers having sex .66 .80
Performing oral sex .63 .63
Finding out that someone you don’t like has sexual fantasies about you .57 .66
Forging someone’s signature on a legal document .75 .20
Intentionally lying during a business transaction .75 .27
Stealing from a neighbor .69 .15
A student cheating to get good grades .69 .27
Shoplifting a candy bar from a convenience store .62 .09
Deceiving a friend .58 .13
Cutting to the front of a line to purchase the last few tickets to a show .56 .12
Descriptive statistics, M(SD)
All participants 3.87 (1.19) 3.31 (1.52) 3.70 (1.14)
Men 3.76 (1.14) 2.19 (1.21) 3.53 (1.07)
Women 3.94 (1.21) 4.03 (1.23) 3.81 (1.17)
114 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
positively related to sensitivity to sexual disgust (r⫽.38) and
moral disgust (r⫽.17), and sensitivity to sexual disgust was
positively related to sensitivity to moral disgust (r⫽.39).
test and a Wald test were also run. The LM test indicated that
adding a path from any factor to any item not specified to load on
that factor would not improve model fit. The Wald test identified
no paths that could be eliminated without significantly decreasing
model fit. In sum, all items loaded on only the factor they were
predicted to, and residual errors between items on separate factors
did not covary.
A separate CFA in which Disgust Scale-R items were con-
strained to load on the three factors of core disgust, animal re-
minder disgust, and contamination disgust described by Olatunji et
al. (2007) was also run with LM and Wald tests. It demonstrated
(272, N⫽507) ⫽778.78, p⬍.01, CFI ⫽.84,
RMSEA ⫽.061, SRMR ⫽.058. However, the Wald test noted
that removing the item “it would bother me to sleep in a nice hotel
room if I knew that a man had died of a heart attack in that room
the night before” (factor loading ⫽.076) from the animal reminder
factor would not change model fit,
(1, N⫽507) ⫽2.45, p⫽
.117. Also, the LM test indicated improved fit if the animal
reminder disgust item “it would bother me tremendously to touch
a dead body” were allowed to load onto the core disgust factor as
well. Although removing these items marginally improved model
(227, N⫽507) ⫽628.99, p⬍.01, CFI ⫽.86, RMSEA ⫽
.059, SRMR ⫽.052, they were retained so that analyses could be
conducted on the existing published measure. Cronbach’s alphas
were acceptable for the core disgust factor (.82) and animal re-
minder disgust factor (.78) but low for the contamination disgust
factor (.65). Sensitivity to core disgust was highly correlated with
sensitivity to animal reminder disgust (r⫽.79) and contamination
disgust (r⫽.73), and sensitivity to animal reminder disgust and
contamination disgust were also highly correlated (r⫽.60).
Our perspective suggests that the Three-Domain Disgust Scale
does a better job of capturing the heterogeneity of disgust than the
Disgust Scale-R. The average inter-item correlations within the
core, animal reminder, and contamination domains of the Disgust
Scale-R were .28, .34, and .27, respectively, whereas the average
correlation between items on separate factors was .23. For the
Three-Domain Disgust Scale, the average inter-item correlations
within the pathogen, sexual, and moral domains were .43, .48, and
.44, respectively, whereas the average correlation between items
on separate factors was .15. Thus, there is less overlap between the
constructs measured by the Three-Domain Disgust Scale than
there is between those measured by the Disgust Scale-R. Indeed,
constraining the three factors of the Disgust Scale-R to be perfectly
correlated did not significantly diminish model fit, ⌬
507) ⫽1.54, p⫽.67. This means that a model in which the core
domain, animal reminder domain, and contamination domain were
correlated at r⫽1.00 was statistically equivalent to the observed
model in which the correlations between the factors were freely
estimated. In sum, Prediction 1 was supported: The three domains
of the Disgust Scale-R do not demonstrate strong distinctiveness—
rather than reflecting the heterogeneity of disgust, they appear to
measure very similar constructs.
To examine the correlations between Three-Domain Disgust
Scale factors and Disgust Scale-R factors, we performed a CFA on
both scales simultaneously and allowed the six latent variables to
covary. Overall model fit was suboptimal,
(974, N⫽507) ⫽
2,487.04, CFI ⫽.82, RMSEA ⫽.055, SRMR ⫽.062. Given that
poor-fitting models can give inaccurate parameter estimates such
as covariances between factors (Kline, 2005), we created three
item parcels per domain with every third item in each domain and
reran the analysis. This model fit the data well,
507) ⫽338.91, CFI ⫽.95, RMSEA ⫽.060, SRMR ⫽.048.
correlations between the latent variables supported our second
prediction that all domains of the Disgust Scale-R would strongly
relate to pathogen disgust but not sexual or moral disgust (see
Table 4). Pathogen disgust was strongly correlated with core,
animal reminder, and contamination disgust (rs⫽.92, .61, and .66,
respectively), whereas sexual disgust was more modestly related
(rs⫽.49, .29, and .45, respectively), and moral disgust was
virtually unrelated (rs⫽.13, –.01, and .19, respectively).
Our third prediction suggested that, contrary to the perspective
suggested by Rozin et al. (2000), sexual disgust is not a component
of animal reminder disgust, and any relationship between sexual
disgust and the animal reminder domain of the Disgust Scale-R
should be statistically accounted for by pathogen disgust. To test
these competing hypotheses, we compared two structural models,
again using item parcels: the first in which the animal reminder
and pathogen disgust latent variables were allowed to covary and
both predicted the sexual disgust latent variable, and the second in
which the path from animal reminder disgust to sexual disgust was
constrained to zero. In the first model,
(24, N⫽507) ⫽119.00,
p⬍.01, CFI ⫽.96, RMSEA ⫽.088, SRMR ⫽.052, the path from
animal reminder to sexual disgust was ␤⫽.08, and the path from
pathogen to sexual disgust was ␤⫽.35. In the second model,
(25, N⫽507) ⫽120.31, p⬍.01, CFI ⫽.96, RMSEA ⫽.087,
SRMR ⫽.054, the path from pathogen to sexual disgust was ␤⫽
.41. The second model in which the path from animal reminder to
sexual disgust was removed fit no worse than the first model in
which it was included, ⌬
(1, N⫽507) ⫽1.31, p⫽.25 (see
Figure 2). The data thus indicated that sexual disgust is unrelated
to animal reminder disgust when pathogen disgust is controlled
for. Even without controlling for pathogen disgust, the relationship
between animal reminder disgust and sexual disgust is modest (r⫽
.29)—much lower than the degree to which the other Disgust
Scale-R factors relate with each other and with pathogen disgust
(and in fact lower than the other two Disgust Scale-R factors relate
to sexual disgust).
A CFA on the Three-Domain Disgust Scale further supported
the factor structure observed in Studies 1–3. Analyses of the
Disgust Scale-R suggested that, even with improvements made by
Olatunji et al. (2007), the model of disgust sensitivity proposed by
Haidt et al. (1994) continues to be problematic from a measure-
A mixed 3 (disgust factor: within subjects) ⫻2 (participant sex:
between subjects) ANOVA on unit-weighted factor scores demonstrated an
interaction between sex and disgust domain, F(2, 504) ⫽126.32, p⬍.001
(Cohen’s dfor pathogen ⫽0.15, sexual ⫽1.51, moral ⫽0.24). See
Figure 1 for effect sizes of the sex difference across Studies 1– 4.
The correlations between latent variables were similar regardless of
whether individual items or item parcels were used as indicators. One
correlation coefficient differed by .08 between the methods; all other
coefficients differed by less than .03.
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
ment perspective. The three factors in the Disgust Scale-R were
highly correlated, blurring their conceptual distinctiveness. Addi-
tionally, one item failed to load on its specified factor, one item
loaded on multiple factors, and internal reliability for the contam-
ination disgust factor was low.
The face validity of Disgust Scale-R items raises questions
regarding the nature of core disgust, animal reminder disgust,
and contamination disgust as theoretical constructs. For exam-
ple, “a friend offers you a piece of chocolate shaped like
dog-doo” is said to measure contamination disgust, whereas “if
you see someone put ketchup on vanilla ice cream and eat it”
and “you are about to drink a glass of milk when you smell that
it is spoiled” are said to measure core disgust. All three items
involve food, but the Haidt et al. (1994) model argues that
feces-shaped fudge falls under contamination, whereas the milk
item, which explicitly mentions contamination, is conceptual-
ized as measuring core disgust. Moreover, only one of the eight
animal reminder items references animals (a dead cat), whereas
five of the core disgust items do (monkey meat, a rat, a
cockroach, maggots, and an earthworm).
Further, 13 of the 25 items may not directly measure disgust.
Many items on the Disgust Scale-R ask participants to indicate the
degree to which they are bothered or upset by a particular act—not
disgusted—making it unclear whether the emotion being measured
is disgust or something else (e.g., sadness, fear, anger, surprise).
For instance, several items in the animal reminder domain address
aversion to acts that can be described as creepy or unsettling (e.g.,
“I would go out of my way to avoid walking through a graveyard”;
“it would bother me to sleep in a nice hotel room if I knew a man
had died of a heart attack in that room before”). Similarly, items in
the contamination domain may address compulsive tendencies
(e.g., “I never let any part of my body touch the toilet seat in a
public restroom”), and items on the core domain may relate to
sensation seeking (e.g., “I might be willing to try monkey meat,
under some circumstances”) and senses of etiquette (e.g., “it both-
ers me to hear someone clear a throat full of mucous”). Given the
theoretically questionable nature of the constructs measured by the
Disgust Scale-R, the high correlations between Disgust Scale-R
domains (rs between domains ranging from .66 to .84 as reported
by Olatunji et al., 2007; rs between .58 and .77 in Study 4), and the
high correlations between Disgust Scale-R domains and our patho-
gen disgust domain (rs between .62 and .90), we suggest that the
Disgust Scale-R largely reflects sensitivity to pathogen disgust,
which is distinct from sensitivity to sexual and moral disgust.
Finally, we found evidence contrary to the model of disgust
proposed by Rozin et al. (2000), in which sexual disgust is a
component of animal reminder disgust. The animal reminder do-
main was more strongly related to the pathogen domain than the
sexual domain, and the relationship between the animal reminder
Correlations Between the Three-Domain Disgust Scale and the
Disgust Scale—Revised Domains (Study 4)
␣1234 5 6
1. Pathogen .84 — .40 .20 .92 .61 .66
2. Sexual .87 — .36 .49 .29 .45
3. Moral .84 — .13 ⫺.01 .19
4. Core .82 — .77 .76
5. Animal reminder .78 — .58
6. Contamination .65 —
Figure 2. The diagram represents two structural models: the first in which the path from animal reminder to
sexual disgust is freely estimated (standardized weights left of the slash) and the second in which the path is
constrained to zero (standardized weights right of the slash). The second model fits the data as well as the first
(1, N⫽507) ⫽1.31, p⫽.25. In both structural models, three item bundles from the Three-Domain
Disgust Scale or Disgust Scale—Revised are used as indicators for each of the three latent variables.
116 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS
and sexual domains was statistically accounted for by the pathogen
domain. This result casts doubt on the theory that disgust toward
sex fulfills the same function as disgust toward concepts related to
death, envelope violations, and poor hygiene.
The current research suggests that individual differences in
sensitivity to disgust can be conceptualized into three adaptively
relevant domains: a pathogen domain, which functions to motivate
avoidance of infectious microorganisms; a sexual domain, which
functions to motivate avoidance of costly sexual behaviors; and a
moral domain, which functions to motivate social avoidance of
antisocial norm violators. Factor analyses across four studies dem-
onstrated that individual differences in sensitivity to disgust can
indeed be categorized along these three dimensions: Study 1
provided initial support for parsing disgust along these domains
when reactions to a wide array of disgust elicitors were considered;
Study 2 indicated that the three domains demonstrate discriminant
validity, differentially relating to constructs such as primary psy-
chopathy, PVD, and Big Five personality traits in manners con-
sistent with our theoretical approach; Study 3 confirmed the factor
structure suggested in Studies 1 and 2 in a diverse sample; and
Study 4 introduced a new measure of disgust sensitivity, the
Three-Domain Disgust Scale, and demonstrated that the construct
measuring disgust sensitivity developed by Haidt et al. (1994) and
modified by Olatunji et al. (2007) is strongly related to sensitivity
to pathogen disgust but not sexual or moral disgust.
The model of disgust we propose is distinct from previous
conceptualizations, and it provides an alternate theoretical and
empirical lens for investigating the multiple functions of disgust.
To guide our investigation, we considered the recurring selective
pressures our hominid ancestors faced to generate hypotheses
regarding the evolved functions of disgust (see also Curtis &
Biran, 2001; Fessler & Navarrete, 2005). This approach calls into
serious question the purported animal reminder function of disgust
(Haidt et al., 1994; Rozin et al., 2000). As discussed by others
(Fessler & Navarrete, 2005; Kirkpatrick & Navarrete, 2006), the
evolution of such a function is highly improbable, and is it unclear
whether people even actively avoid reminders that they are ani-
mals (Bloom, 2004; Royzman & Sabini, 2001). Whereas disgust
associated with mate choice and sexual behaviors has previously
been described as an example of animal reminder disgust, we
suggest that sexual disgust is a distinct adaptive domain requiring
unique sets of categorization procedures and decision rules per-
taining to the mating arena.
Our revised conceptualization of disgust informed the develop-
ment of a new instrument to measure individual differences in
disgust sensitivities. This instrument not only measures sensitivity
to pathogen disgust but also sensitivity to sexual disgust and moral
disgust, both of which are absent in the Disgust Scale-R (Olatunji
et al., 2007). The Three-Domain Disgust Scale we developed thus
provides an empirically validated way to explore individual dif-
ferences in sensitivity to sexual and moral disgust—two disgust
domains that have largely been ignored—in addition to pathogen
disgust, a construct we argue has been measured using existing
measures of disgust sensitivity.
Whereas past research on disgust sensitivity has suggested that
women are generally more sensitive than men to disgust (e.g.,
Druschel & Sherman, 1999; Haidt et al., 1994), our model predicts
that sex differences in disgust sensitivity should vary across dis-
gust domains. This prediction was supported across all four stud-
ies: Women’s greater disgust sensitivity was consistently more
pronounced in the sexual domain than the pathogen and moral
domains. This pattern likely reflects the different fitness costs men
and women potentially pay for choosing a particular individual as
a sexual partner (Trivers, 1972). In contrast, men and women
likely faced more similar selection pressures (though perhaps still
not identical) when it came to avoiding disease and individuals
inflicting social costs. For this reason, more muted sex differences
were predicted and found in the pathogen and moral domains,
We have introduced an approach to disgust sensitivity suggest-
ing that three broad, relatively independent selection pressures
motivated the evolution of three distinct domains of disgust. We
propose this model as a starting point from which to build and not
necessarily a comprehensive view of disgust. As case in point,
within each domain there are likely to be further interesting dis-
tinctions to draw. For instance, within the pathogen domain, there
may be different sources of contamination (e.g., other individuals,
foods, dead bodies). To the extent that these different sources rely
on distinct cues signaling pathogen presence, there could be further
meaningful variation in individual responses to these items. Some
of the animal reminder items suggested by Rozin et al. (2000) may
be particularly interesting to explore. For example, although gore
and corpses certainly inspire disgust, they are also creepy and
uncanny. This creepiness may serve additional functions beyond
disease avoidance, or they may motivate a disease-avoidance re-
sponse that is qualitatively distinct from pathogen disgust.
With respect to the sexual disgust domain, we indicated that
avoidance of particular individuals as sexual partners should de-
pend on, among other things, intrinsic qualities and genetic com-
patibility. Both dimensions rely on the evaluation of different
features (e.g., those used to assess physical attractiveness vs.
relatedness). This might lead to further distinctions within the
sexual domain, especially when considering the factors that con-
tribute to individual differences in attitudes toward various sexual
behaviors. As an example, recent work has shown that disgust
toward engaging in sex with one’s sibling varies as a function of
the presence of kinship cues such as duration of childhood coresi-
dence with a sibling and seeing one’s mother care for a sibling as
a newborn (Lieberman, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2007). These cues
predict intensities of aversions toward sibling sex but should not
necessarily predict disgust toward sexual acts that do not involve
a sibling (Park, 2008). Likewise, disgust toward other types of
sexual behavior might vary as a function of separate factors
yielding unique patterns of individual differences.
The same can be said of the moral disgust domain. There are a
number of ways individuals can impose social costs— by cheating,
cuckolding, defecting, lying, and so forth. Evaluating the occur-
rence of one of these acts and the magnitude of costs imposed (on
oneself or members of one’s social group) likely relies on different
sets of information. In addition to the possibility that different
computational systems underlie say, assessing whether one’s mate
has been unfaithful or whether someone has been stealing money
THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
from you, different factors might contribute to individual differ-
ences across the myriad classes of moral transgressions. Future
research endeavors may indeed uncover further differentiation to
complement the model we have proposed and tested.
The model of disgust we propose also raises a series of new and
interesting research questions across the psychological sciences.
Given that pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust solve distinct
adaptive problems, they may have different developmental trajec-
tories. For instance, adaptations for guiding pathogen avoidance
are required well before adaptations guiding mate choice, suggest-
ing that pathogen disgust might develop earlier than sexual disgust
(e.g., before puberty). The developmental patterns associated with
moral disgust might be distinct from either pathogen or sexual
disgust, perhaps even varying with the type of social interaction
(e.g., dyadic social exchange vs. coalition formation). Although
much has been done with respect to emotional and moral devel-
opment (e.g., see Eisenberg, 2000; Fischer, Shaver, & Carnochan,
1990; Kohlberg, 1984; Soufre, 1997), the three-domain model of
disgust we propose offers a new and rich source for further
Additional lines of investigation relate to the behavioral patterns
and neural systems associated with the different functions of
disgust. To the extent that the adaptive problems solved by patho-
gen, sexual, and moral disgust require different behavioral solu-
tions, activation of a particular domain should coincide with those
sets of behaviors. For instance, pathogen disgust might activate
behaviors related to cleansing, whereas moral disgust might acti-
vate punitive and social exclusionary behaviors. The motivation of
distinct behavioral patterns across domains further suggests the
engagement of different neural systems. Given that the different
disgust domains require unique sets of categorization and decision-
making processes, they should activate distinct neural regions.
Recent fMRI investigations using normal populations suggest this
is indeed the case. In addition to activating common neural regions
associated with a disgust response, imagination of acts associated
with pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust also activated distinct
regions in the brain (Moll et al., 2005; Schaich Borg et al., 2008).
Further, evidence from patients with lesions in particular brain
regions has shown dissociations between sensitivities to pathogen
and sexual disgust (Calder et al., 2000). Despite this emerging
evidence, the existence of moral disgust remains controversial.
Future research endeavors may not only provide further insight
into the distinction between pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust
but also explore distinctions between the emotions such as con-
tempt, anger, and disgust—three emotions proposed to regulate
morality (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999).
Our model also has important implications for the fields of
clinical neuroscience and neuropsychology. One question our ap-
proach raises is whether groups shown to possess deficits in
disgust processing are impaired in processing all types of disgust
or only particular domains. For instance, Huntington’s disease
patients have shown selective impairments in disgust (Sprengelm-
eyer et al., 1996). It is uncertain, however, whether these impair-
ments span all domains of disgust or are confined to only one or
two. Similar questions emerge regarding individuals with
obsessive– compulsive disorder and patients with brain lesions to
the insula and other structures associated with disgust.
In general, pathogen disgust may be relevant to areas of research
involving contagion and disease such as health psychology and
public health policy; sexual disgust is relevant not only to research
on mate choice and sexual harassment but also may be a valuable
construct within the clinical setting (e.g., for individuals with
sexual disorders) and the legal sphere (e.g., as related to legal cases
involving rape, incest, and sexual abuse); and moral disgust, while
also tightly connected to the legal sphere, is highly relevant to
research on cooperation, altruism, and other social group processes
as well as clinical conditions such as psychopathy and related
It is our hope that this three-domain model of disgust will
encourage researchers who have investigated individual differ-
ences in disgust sensitivity to consider the extent to which various
constructs relate to the distinct functional domains of disgust.
Constructs that have been found to relate to previous instruments
measuring disgust sensitivity (e.g., tendencies toward compul-
sions, eating disorders, blood phobias, animal phobias, stigmati-
zation, etc.) may be found to relate to pathogen disgust but not
sexual or moral disgust. Conversely, constructs that have not
previously been thought to relate to disgust sensitivity may not be
related to sensitivity to pathogen disgust but rather to sexual or
moral disgust. Given that previous disgust instruments have not
adequately measured these two domains, such questions have yet
to be fully explored.
As several theorists have pointed out, disgust plays a strong role
shaping a variety of social processes, including prejudice, ethno-
centrism, social exclusion, responses to perceived stigma, and
phobias (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005; Kurzban & Leary, 2001;
Navarrete & Fessler, 2006; Olatunji & Sawchuk, 2005; Pryor,
Reeder, Yeadon, & Hesson-McInnis, 2004). For this role to be
fully understood, it is important to clarify the processes regulating
each functional domain of disgust because different social attitudes
and behaviors may stem from decision rules specific to each
domain. Ultimately, to address and potentially change attitudes
relating to particular social phenomena, it will be critical to un-
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THREE DOMAINS OF DISGUST
Three-Domain Disgust Scale
The following items describe a variety of concepts. Please rate how disgusting you find the concepts described
in the items, where 0 means that you do not find the concept disgusting at all and 6 means that you find the
concept extremely disgusting.
Not at all
1. Shoplifting a candy bar from a convenience store 0 12345 6
2. Hearing two strangers having sex 0 12345 6
3. Stepping on dog poop 0 12345 6
4. Stealing from a neighbor 0 12345 6
5. Performing oral sex 0 12345 6
6. Sitting next to someone who has red sores on their arm 0 12345 6
7. A student cheating to get good grades 0 12345 6
8. Watching a pornographic video 0 12345 6
9. Shaking hands with a stranger who has sweaty palms 0 12345 6
10. Deceiving a friend 0 12345 6
11. Finding out that someone you don’t like has sexual fantasies about you 0 12345 6
12. Seeing some mold on old leftovers in your refrigerator 0 12345 6
13. Forging someone’s signature on a legal document 0 12345 6
14. Bringing someone you just met back to your room to have sex 0 12345 6
15. Standing close to a person who has body odor 0 12345 6
16. Cutting to the front of a line to purchase the last few tickets to a show 0 12345 6
17. A stranger of the opposite sex intentionally rubbing your thigh in an elevator 0 12345 6
18. Seeing a cockroach run across the floor 0 12345 6
19. Intentionally lying during a business transaction 0 12345 6
20. Having anal sex with someone of the opposite sex 0 12345 6
21. Accidentally touching a person’s bloody cut 0 12345 6
Received March 17, 2008
Revision received January 12, 2009
Accepted January 20, 2009 䡲
122 TYBUR, LIEBERMAN, AND GRISKEVICIUS