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Disgust Sensitivity Extends to Visual Perception

Disgust Sensitivity Extends to Visual PerceptionOne of our strongest emotions comes from viewing revolting or repugnant images and situations. Experts say that the intense, visceral sense of revulsion that comes with disgust presumably helps us to avoid contaminants that can make us sick or even kill us.

New research now suggests that disgust not only helps us to avoid impurities, it may also make us better able to see them.

Typically, if we see something that looks dirty and disgusting, we assume it’s contaminated. However, when something is white, we are more likely to assume that it’s clean and pure.

Researchers acknowledge that the association between lightness and purity is a belief of many different cultures. In fact, this belief may explain why we prefer white teeth, white operating rooms, and white porcelain bathroom fixtures.

“In the psychology of purity, even the slightest deviation from a pure state (i.e., whiteness) is an unacceptable blemish,” said psychological scientist Dr. Gary Sherman and his co-authors. These observations led them to hypothesize that if feeling disgust motivates people to create or protect pure environments, it may also lead them to prioritize the light end of the visual spectrum.

Thus, for people trying to preserve cleanliness and purity, the ability to distinguish even slight deviations from a light shade like white may become particularly important.

In the study, Sherman his co-authors investigated this hypothesis in three studies. Their findings are published in Psychological Science.

In their first study, 123 college students were presented with sets of rectangles. In each set of four rectangles, one rectangle was either slightly darker or slightly lighter than the others.

The participants were asked to indicate which of the four rectangles in each set was different from the other three. After completing the discrimination task, they completed a survey that measured their overall sensitivity to disgust.

Investigators discovered that the students were generally better at identifying the rectangle that stood out when the rectangles were presented on the dark end of the visual spectrum.

However, researchers also observed a significant relationship between participants’ performance on the light end of the spectrum and their levels of trait disgust. That is, people who showed higher sensitivity to disgust also showed better performance on the light end of the spectrum relative to the dark end.

Importantly, this effect was specific to disgust, as there was no such relationship between participants’ levels of trait fear and their discrimination performance.

These findings were confirmed in a second study, showing that students who reported greater disgust sensitivity were better at distinguishing a faint number set against a background of a nearly identical shade presented on the light end of the visual spectrum relative to the dark end.

Based on these findings, Sherman and his co-authors wondered whether disgust might actively influence what people perceive. In other words, would inducing disgust actually “tune” participants’ visual perception, enhancing their ability to discriminate among small deviations in lightness.

Thus, in the third study participants were presented with a slide show of emotional images designed to elicit either disgust (i.e., images of cockroaches, trash) or fear (i.e., images of a handgun, an angry face). They then completed another perceptual discrimination task.

Just as in the first two studies, greater trait disgust predicted better performance on light-end trials relative to performance on dark-end trials. But the emotional images had different effects depending on the participants’ disgust sensitivity.

Researchers discovered participants who were low on trait disgust, the view of disgusting images seemed to have no effect on their discrimination performance on either end of the spectrum.

However, for participants who were highly sensitive to disgust, viewing disgusting images significantly enhanced their performance on light-end trials.

Investigators believe these findings show that the emotion of disgust influences perception as well as cognition.

“Research on the experience-altering nature of emotion has typically focused on nonperceptual experience, such as changes in cognitive appraisals. It is clear, however, that these influences extend to perception,” the researchers said.

All in all, investigators believe the studies provide evidence that our emotions regarding disgust sensitivity and perceptual sensitivity help us detect and avoid the germs, toxins, and other contaminants around us.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Woman with an expression of disgust photo by shutterstock.

Disgust Sensitivity Extends to Visual Perception

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Disgust Sensitivity Extends to Visual Perception. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Dec 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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