How to Cultivate Disgust

When psychologists want to elicit disgust, they avail themselves of invertebrates. Why do we find insects so repulsive? What is disgusting?
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(Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Within minutes, our hands were covered in feces and vomit. Our quarry was the plains lubber grasshopper, the largest of all insects on the Wyoming grasslands—and its appearance matches its disgusting behavior. Brachystola magna resembles the human archetype of repulsion: the old hag. This is a fat grasshopper with deep wrinkles and folds, grotesquely beefy femurs, a pathetically spare rear-end, and a bald head (at least it doesn't have hair growing in offensive places). This is no dainty grasshopper capable of lithesome leaps; it has the heft of a breakfast sausage. Every summer we collected a few dozen of these creatures for dissection in the “Insect Anatomy & Physiology” laboratory.

Most of my summer encounters with rangeland grasshoppers involved attempts to suppress grasshopper outbreaks. There is a certain nobility to taking on a worthy foe that humans have battled for centuries. However, there was no such glory in my encounters with lubber grasshoppers, which don’t reach outbreak proportions and certainly can’t swarm, given that the lubberly beasts have wings that are reduced to useless stubs. And if they threatened farmers’ fields, mounting a control program would be tantamount to picking a fight with the fat kid on the playground or beating up the town drunk.

Moreover, the lubber is about the easiest species of grasshopper to catch, at least in principle. However, the only way to gather dozens of them is by hand. An insect net is an effective means of capturing grasshoppers that are willing and able to live up to their names, but a net will snare few of these lumbering creatures. They are clumsy behemoths, hopping with the agility of insectan sumo wrestlers. Hence the name lubbers. Grabbing a fat, flightless beast—the dodo of the insect world—is a simple matter. But catching this grasshopper is not the same thing as holding on to it.

The lubber may look dim-witted and benign, but appearances can be deceiving. Lurking beneath the bulging exoskeleton is a cantankerous creature. One must be careful when accosting these grasshoppers because their hind legs sport rows of spines that they rake across the flesh of a would-be captor. A clever predator (or entomologist) can neutralize this defensive maneuver by grabbing them by their hind legs, but at this juncture, the lubbers resort to their most noteworthy tactic: they become utterly repulsive.

Their first and most revolting strategy in this regard is to regurgitate copiously. Many species exhibit this defensive behavior, and as kids we referred to grasshoppers as “spitting tobacco juice.” Indeed, the cola-colored fluid resembles the expectorant of tobacco chewers in its capacity to stain whatever it hits. Of course, a grasshopper isn't spitting wads of chewed tobacco. Rather, it is heaving up masticated and liquefied sunflower leaves—the contents of its foregut, which is the anatomical equivalent of our stomach. The prairie lubber manages to produce this material in impressive quantities, smearing itself and its handler with the dark brown fluid. For this grasshopper, however, the effort to repulse an assailant is not complete.

Brachystola magna is an archetype of a disgusting insect. The grasshopper's common name, the plains lubber, refers to its big, clumsy, and off-putting appearance. (Wikimedia)

The restrained grasshopper next begins to defecate prodigiously. As opposed to vomiting, this offensive approach is not widely practiced among the lubber’s brethren. Perhaps it wouldn't be particularly repugnant for most species, as grasshoppers generally produce very dry, compact fecal pellets the size of sesame seeds. The lubber, in contrast, can produce a dozen mushy turds, similar to those of a mouse, in quick succession. Its favorite meal of juicy roadside sunflower leaves is far more succulent than prairie grasses and provides enough fluid to allow this grasshopper the luxury of a soft stool. Thus, an experienced collector avoids the rear end of the grasshopper and holds the insect at bay for a few seconds until it has exhausted its colonic arsenal. If one is too hasty in dropping the repulsive creatures into a collecting bag, the grasshoppers quickly foul the container with smeared feces, making any future handling a most unpleasant prospect.

I confess to a sort of perverse pleasure in watching my field crew—generally tough, young fellows—as their faces twist in revulsion at the lubbers’ defensive tactics. These experienced outdoorsmen who routinely field dress deer handle the grasshoppers gingerly. They are, along with me, disgusted. What is this emotion and how can something the size of a cigar butt so powerfully infest our minds?

What Is Disgust?

Disgust is a universal human emotion that functions to protect the physical and psychological “self.” We are disgusted by stimuli associated with contamination or infection. Our bodies can be invaded by all sorts of materials, chemicals, and organisms, so reacting negatively keeps us from contacting hazards and allows us to expel offensive material if it gets past our defenses. With cognitive sophistication, even ideas can be disgusting. For example, we find bestiality to be repulsive, as if a “dirty thought” could contaminate our consciousness. As Jimmy Carter famously confessed, “I committed adultery in my heart many times.”

The etymological origin of the word disgust points us toward the sense of taste. The word comes from des, meaning “the opposite of,” and either the French gout or the Latin gustare, meaning taste (as in gusto and gustatory). This would be the end of the story, except in other languages the terms that are translated as disgust lack this connection to taste. The German widerlich (disgusting) and Ekel (disgust) connote a sense of being in opposition to something, along the lines of the Spanish repugnante, which is rooted in the Latin pugnare, meaning to fight (as in pugilism). In these cases, there is no implicit sensory quality. As such, some scholars believe that we might overemphasize the role of (dis)taste in understanding the nature of disgust. Rather, the focus should be on the capacity of something to evoke a strong aversion due to its potential to taint through proximity, contact, or ingestion (only the last of these being explicitly a matter of tasting). Whatever the linguistic story, it is clear that English has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to words that convey a sense of disgust: abhorrent, execrable, foul, gross, gruesome, nauseating, odious, offensive, putrid, repugnant, repulsive, revolting, sickening, and vile—and all of these have been used to describe insects.

Although disgust got its start in the English language in the 1600s, scientific interest in this emotion didn't arise for another two centuries, with none other than Charles Darwin. While on his famed voyage, he observed:

It is curious how readily this feeling is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food. In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage.

Philosophers and psychologists latched onto disgust in the early twentieth century, although interest largely faded as the study of other emotions became of greater interest and respectability. The exception was the psychoanalysts, who remained fascinated and interpreted disgust as a means of inhibiting the consummation of repressed urges. In the past few years, however, disgust has enjoyed a scientific renaissance and seems to be emerging as the “white rat” of emotions, given how convenient and easy it is to elicit (e.g., a cockroach floating in a cup of tea)—and observe.

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Jeffrey Lockwood is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. He is the author of Six-Legged Soldiers.

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