Dr Alex Skolnick, St Joseph’s University Philadelphia
Some people have their stomach turned by just the mention of something disgusting, while others can happily eat their dinner while talking about toilets. Alex Skolnick is from St Joseph’s University Philadelphia, and he explained to Kat Arney why some of us are far more disgustable than others.
Alex - There are lots of individual differences. As you might experience in life where somebody is really disgusted by a cockroach walking by and other people can just pick it up. So, there's definitely individual differences and that will run the whole gambit across gender and age. We do tend to see that if you give a survey and you asked men and women questions about what's disgusting that women tend to score higher on a tendency to be disgusted by objects than compared to men.
Kat - So, women are basically more easily grossed out by stuff?
Alex - Yes and it is about being grossed out, right? So, you can look disgust in several ways. There's sort of what we call core disgust which is really the gross out kind of disgust, stepping on a caterpillar or something like that. There's also other types. There's interpersonal disgust where you're disgusted by someone’s behaviour. You don’t like how someone behaves towards somebody else. And there's also moral disgust where disgust might actually inform how we make moral decisions. The strongest gender differences are in the gross out kind of disgust. There are smaller differences in interpersonal and very small or no differences when you talk about moral disgust. The disgust feelings someone might express are going to be pretty similar between men and women, but when you're talking about stepping in dog poop or a friend vomiting or something awful like that, men tend to be less disgusted or admit less disgust.
Kat - Why do you think that might be?
Alex - You can try to explain why women maybe are higher in disgust than men evolutionarily because you could think that women might be able to protect their pregnancies let’s say, by – if disgust is sort of protective. It has a sort of protective function because we are often disgusted by things that could be dangerous or things that we eat might be toxic that taste bitter, or certain insects might be dangerous or snakes. Snake is a common disgust object. You might think that if you're high in disgust, you will be a little bit safer from these things that might be threatening. And so, one idea is that women are higher because they're protecting their pregnancies and protecting their children from potential threat and disgust might be that feeling that can warn you away from those things.
Kat - Or is it just that guys aren’t letting on that they find something horrible. That they want to pretend to be tough. “No. That wasn’t disgusting at all. That’s fine.”
Alex - Some of the differences between men and women can be attributed to more of a cultural bias or even a masculinity bias where men do want to put themselves out there as being masculine. Emotions like fear and disgust or maybe expressing pain, these are things that might make somebody seem less masculine. I don’t always think that they're suppressing these thoughts consciously. I think sometimes it’s a very quick and unconscious suppression, but I think they're just sort of in the habit of doing it.
Kat - Are there cultural differences when you look across countries?
Alex - Most of this research has been done in the United States or in United Kingdom or in Germany, several places in Europe or Australia. When you do it in these places, you tend to find the standard pattern that women tend to be more easily disgusted. We studied disgust in Ghana and we found that one, that Ghanaian students show a much higher level of disgust. They're much more easily disgusted than the comparison with students at my university. We also found that there really were very few gender differences between men and women in their disgust. We have four different measures and across all four, there were no differences.
Kat - So, what do you think that tells us about why different people feel different levels of disgust?
Alex - I think the cultural differences could lead us in a couple of ways to think about it. One is that what you see is actually – when you look at disgust in the women in Ghana versus women in the United States, they were a little bit higher in Ghana, but they were pretty similar. But it was the men that were really the difference. So, men reported very low disgust here. But in Ghana, the men basically showed the same higher level of disgust with the women. So, they seem to be the ones who have changed compared to the United States. And it was another study that compared disgust in Slovakia compared to Turkey. In Turkey, they found the same thing where Turkish subjects showed more disgust than Slovakian subjects. But they also showed no gender difference. So again, it seems like the women were pretty similar but the men are the ones who were changing and increasing their disgust in these certain cultures.
Kat - What do these kind of studies reveal about us, reveal about ourselves?
Alex - I think by understanding our emotions in all aspects of our emotions which is really a very strong trend today in research because emotions are – they’re really a strong part of who we are and how we manage the world, and how regulate and, emotions can leads astray and cause problems for us in terms of mental illness and things like that. So, I think it’s really important to understand all the facets of emotion and disgust actually plays some role in phobias. There's some evidence that maybe disgust plays a role in PTSD, some other types of mental illness. So, it could be that understanding all the facets, how do these differences manifest themselves across age which is very interesting, across gender, would help us really understand how these emotions work in the mind in the first place.